Trees v. Blind Orphans: Fair Fight?

  • The couple are born again Christians.
  • Four of their children are blind and were adopted from the streets
    of Korea, China and India, and their mom doesn’t want them "having
    black eyes running into trees all day long.  These kids have enough
    obstacles in their lives."
  • The couple say they plan to build a swimming pool and put a swing
    set, trampoline and a barbeque in the backyard, which would leave precious little
    room for the trees.
  • One of their kids was literally left on their doorstep by his adoptive parents after they decided they couldn’t handle a blind child.  Two of the
    adopted children, including one left abandoned and malnourished on the
    streets of Calcutta, are also severely mentally retarded.         
  • County regulations require developers to preserve trees on 20 percent
    of the property, but normally the subsequent purchasers of the properties can do
    anything they want with the trees.  In this case, because the
    developers had violated the regs so egregiously, the county decided to prohibit buyers from removing the trees in perpetuity.  In
    settlement negotiations, the county agreed to drop the prohibition on
    removing the trees and reduce the number of trees from 80 to 20,
    but now the Bartlings are also demanding a quarter-mil in compensation for their
    troubles, calling the whole situation an Extreme Screwover.
    "Since when are trees more important than people?" they ask.

Whew!  This story made my sympathies bounce back and forth so many times I felt like a spectator at Wimbledon.  You couldn’t ask for a more heart-tugging family to challenge the knee-jerk assumptions of a treehugger like myself.  And my usual suspicions about religious
true believers melted in the face of this couple, Mother Theresa-type Chrisitians despite their wealth.  On the other hand, their safety concerns seem pretty bogus when you see what they’re choosing instead of trees – trampoline, swimming pool, a swing set – though bogus fear-mongering is fair game in  warfare, be it in the legal realm or in the press.

And let’s back up and reexamine the law here. What’s the point of
a law that requires developers to plant trees if the
homeowners can dig them all up the day after closing??  For the tree laws to have any effect doesn’t it need to apply to all owners?  But that runs up against this widespread attitude expressed by Karen Bartling: "Can you imagine paying
that much money for a house and having someone telling you what you
should do on your property?"  Well, YES, as a matter of fact I can because I’ve
lived for 21 years with one of the most stringent tree-protection laws
in the U.S.  And friends who live anywhere but here are just as shocked
and indignant about it as Karen. 

But what’s the alternative to the relentless destruction of our woodlands by encroaching development?  It may be that the greater
good might require more restrictions on our personal use of land, given the
problem that keeps on giving – overpopulation.  Fairfax County’s forester says
he’d hope people would choose to keep their trees but "I’ve been
surprised by people who buy a lot and proceed to cut down every tree on
it for one reason or another. They don’t see the benefits."

One part of this moral puzzle is easy for me and probably for you –
the developers here screwed up big-time, so make ’em pay.  But do the trees have to lose,

And should public policy be written in reaction to uniquely wrenching family situations?  (Who can forget the political fiasco over poor Terry Schiavo?)

So Readers, especially the land-use planner wannabees among you, weigh in.

[Photo:  My favorite plant, as seen from my garden chairs.  I could have included an illustrative photo of orphans but that just seemed too icky and exploitative.]


  1. [Xris tried but wasn’t allowed by Typepad to leave this comment, so sent them to me in an email. Susan]

    I’ve been going back and forth on just how nasty I’m willing to be in a public forum. But here’s something.

    In the WaPo article, just after the “Can you imagine …” comment, comes this: “They called the county and got a lawyer and have been negotiating ever since. …”
    Wow. They can afford $2.2M on their “dream home” and they’re too cheap to retain a lawyer to look after their interests *before* they go to closing? They only just learned about this?
    Oh yeah, and I love the part about the death trap, uh, recreational
    equipment they have to put in instead of trees.
    The builder is at fault. Let them sue the builder. The county is rolling over on this. They should hold firm.
    The lack of trees will affect, let’s see: local flooding due to increased runoff, increased noise pollution, greater temperature extremes due to lack of cover from sun and wind …
    And insead of trees they would plant, what, more lawn? Add contamination of ground water from fertilizers and pesticides, increased asthma from ground-level ozone created by internal combustion mowers, reduced
    biodiversity …
    I could go on, and on … and on …

  2. Trees are a hazard to blind kids, but a swimming pool, barbecue, and swing set are not? Interesting. Better to have black eyes from running into trees than to drown in the pool, or get burned on the barbecue. And I’ll bet dimes to donughts that someone gets a black eye or a goose egg from walking into the path of a kid on a swing and getting smacked in the head. Besides, I’ve yet to meet any blind person, even blind children, with black eyes from running into trees.

    While legal holdups on moving into your new dream home are, of course, horribly frustrating, this sounds like a case in which the family had all these bodacious plans, and now they’re going to have to change plans if the property is to comply with local property laws. Like everyone else who comes up against property laws, they want to be the exception.

    Adopting blind children is a wonderful, selfless, loving thing to do. But it doesn’t allow anyone to cherry-pick only the most convenient laws. The family might spend their time and money better by working with county officials to figure out the best way to comply with the law and still allow them to set up their private playplace. Given that they’ve got over 2 acres to work with, and that they could probably plant small ornamental trees instead of a forest of giants, surely something can be worked out. They might revisit those “topographic reasons” why all the trees have to go on one lot as well. Sounds like a more Christian solution than grabbing a lawyer and going to court.

  3. It seems to me that the majority of the blame here lies with the developer. The Bartlings’ attitude, however, makes it incredibly hard to feel for them. As already pointed out, a pool, swing set, and barbeque seem to be much more hazardous than trees. How big is this pool supposed to be, anyhow? Is it Olympic-sized? Is that why there’s no room for any trees? No sympathy here. I hate that the Christianity thing has been tossed into the debate at all- I’m not sure what that fact contributes to the argument. I’m somewhat baffled, as a former real estate agent, that no one was aware of the tree preservation regulations. That indicates to me that someone (besides the developer) dropped the ball here. Did the Bartlings sign a contract to have a home built by NV Homes without ANY representation (not even a licensed real estate agent?) How stupid. Those regulations are in place for a reason, and ignorance isn’t an excuse for throwing them out the window. It’s unfortunate that some trees might make life more difficult for this family, but I don’t think that their unique circumstances should allow them to ignore laws that were most likely in place long before the development was planned.

  4. Down here people who say things like “Can you imagine paying that much money for a house and having someone telling you what you should do on your property?” invariably are the ones who live in “planned communities” where they go ballistic if a neighbor puts up a clothes line, doesn’t keep the front yard in a regulation green lawn, or dares plant something not on the list of approved suburban plants.

  5. Seems like the trees should get planted on the developer’s land. I’m not that sympathetic to the family but since the developer is the one who broke the law…

  6. This sounds like there might be a terrible law at the heart of the problem. There should be a tree per acre requirement, w/ adjustments for topography, instead of a one-size-fits all approach for a 10 acre parcel that gets subdivided.

    Quite apart from the Monty Python-esque spectacle of little Helen Keller’s running around impaling themselves on low branches, I know I wouldn’t want to buy a house majorly committed to shade.

    Plus, an unnaturally densely planted stand of trees sounds like terrible land management, and a major liability for any homeowner.

    And trees aren’t the only beneficial vegetation in a woodland area. There are shrubs! (Many birds and other wildlife need shrubs as much if not more than they need trees!)

    And what kinds of trees are we talking about anyway? Height and spread? A rose may be a rose may be a rose*, but Aesculus hippocastanum is NOT a Magnolia stellata. *Yeah, what a dumb thing to say. Mini tea roses are not Cecile Bruners either, so *whatever* Gertrude Stein!

    The homeowners got screwed; they should sue.

  7. (My main point being based on the idea that the majority of the 80 trees that originally needed to be put on 10 acres now have to be put on only one of the four subdivisions carved from the original 10 acres.)

  8. I just want to expand on what Chuck B. said.

    I assume the tree ordinance is in place to help to protect the rural “feel” to the area, as well as to preserve as much native habitat as possible. These types of laws start out with good intentions but generally end up not doing much good at all.

    A tree ordinance by itself will do nothing to preserve and/or create habitat. To do that, you need the understory shrubs, grasses and forbs to make it complete. By just legislating the trees, you could easily end up with a “tree park” where there’s nothing but lawn and trees. This may look like “woods” to the uninitiated, but it won’t support any wildlife or preserve the rural character of the area.

    A better ordinance would be that each new home built can only use XX% of the lot – with the rest to be left untouched.

    Ironically, in my area of the country all the new McMansions are built on old farm fields, and most of their owners would kill for a bunch of mature trees surrounding their house and buffering them from their neighbors.

  9. Good Tree Laws can work. The county and developer should go into mediation and work this out. Related story down the road to this one. I found out last week that the community college next door to me illegally removed 8 trees from a fence line around the college’s daycare building and tot lot that was at the edge of a bust state road. Apparently, a small child got under the fence and was heading for the road. They blamed this on the TREE that aided and abetted this child. I blame lack of supervision, not to mention common sense. Keep you fences in good repair or build better ones. In this case it is a 3-4 ft chain link one. What active child couldn’t climb it? The upshot is the college did NOT get permission from the Takoma Park city government that has a very strict tree ordinance. College reps called on the carpet at our college-neighbors committee last week first denied and then apologized. The then try to shift focus the neighbors on the other side of the daycare center who had the nerve to install a water garden and create a ‘potential hazard.’ Huh??!! Your fence and personnel can’t keep the kids in check and you want to blame anything but yourselves. Shame, shame on you. And in the WaPo story shame on the developer.

  10. They should bulldoze the development and plant 800 trees. The town I grew up in has been destroyed by developers and the morally and aethetically vacant bourgeosie (and it was recently featured in a NYTimes article on mc mansions with turrets). Enough is enough.

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