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Tree Loss Signals Another Battle of Burke

As the chain saws sliced through a line of trees between "Old Burke" and the Burke Plaza shopping center, residents feared the regard for history is eroding in their community.

Encroaching progress is taking the form of Dominion Virginia Power cutting down a line of trees between 19th century homes and commercial properties. The move is revealing an unsightly line of the back sides of stores, lined with lights and Dumpsters, according to Lonnie Schorer, who considers it a case of big business vs. the homeowners.

"We're a turn-of-the-century neighborhood. The one concession we had was the tree barrier," Schorer said, referring to a concession with the shopping center builder, when the center was built in the 1970s. Schorer has this agreement in writing, she said, but declined to show it.

The Giant Food store lights were never a problem before, according to Old Burke resident Laura Felt.

"We now have lights from the back of the Giant shining in our window," she said.

THE TREES in question are white pines that line the west side of the railroad tracks under the power lines. Dominion contracted with a tree service company out of Pennsylvania, called Penn Line, to cut the trees down. The crew with the chain saws would not comment, nor would the vice president at the home office.

Le-Ha Anderson, Dominion Virginia Power spokesperson, noted the general rules of Dominion when addressing tree cutting and removal.

"We have a right of way of 50 feet on both sides," she said. "What we're doing is preventive. Certain trees are very dangerous under power lines."

Jay Levinson lives across the tracks in Old Burke as well. He looked at a line of Bradford pear trees that were topped by the workers, meeting the requirement of at least 15 feet in height from the power lines.

"They took down trees that will never reach that height," Levinson said about the pines. "See the Bradford pears? They just topped them," .

Schorer noted a list of concerns that were brought to Dominion's attention. The main point she said, was the lack of communication between Dominion and the community. When the chain saws started, Schorer contacted Dominion. Dominion told her that the trees will be replaced with dogwoods, which she doesn't think are adequate.

"Whatever they put down there will take 30 or more years to get the size," Schorer said. "We had these majestic pines that were part of an agreement. The developer agreed to put in a tree barrier."

FELT WASN'T happy about Dominion's tree plans either.

"What they're going to plant is deciduous," Felt said. "It will be beautiful for probably one month out of the year."

The developer Schorer referred to was developer Bob Travers. Le-Ha Anderson, Dominion spokesperson, said that Dominion did talk with Travers, who owns the shopping center, but not the homeowners in Old Burke.

"The property owners up the hill do not own any of that property, so we would not have contacted them," Anderson said.

Dominion has worked with these particular trees for a few years, trimming them back when necessary. However, since the major power outage last August that affected several states, Dominion decided that the trees should be cut down. The National Electrical Reliability Council (NERC) has tightened standards since that blackout.

"Vegetation growing into the power lines is what ultimately caused it [in August 2003]," Anderson said.

The power lines along the railroad tracks are transmission lines and have a high voltage, so an outage along that electrical corridor would affect many people. The other category of power lines is distribution lines.

"If we have an outage along transmission lines, we have thousands without power," Anderson said.

After the white pines are cut down, Dominion will plant 80 Elaeagnus trees, which is a low, slow-growth tree, and 24 Kousa dogwoods, Anderson said.

When driving down Old Burke Lake Road. it's something of a flashback to the turn of the 20th century. The road is parallel to the present Burke Lake Road, across from Lake Braddock Secondary School. The road used to be an at-grade crossing over the railroad tracks and the crossing can still be seen today.

Felt's house was built in 1903, Schorer's was built in 1912, and Levinson lives in a house that used to be the old general store. Also on the block is an old barn, dirt roads and some local history.

"We're only the fifth owners," said Felt of her house. "I believe the telegrapher from the railroad lived in it."

Schorer remembered a hermit named Willy, who lived along the tracks. He lived in a makeshift shanty and did odd jobs until his tools were stolen from his house.

"We used to invite him over when we had neighborhood barbecues. He was part of the neighborhood," Schorer said.

Over the years, Schorer has collected items she dug up in the garden. Among them is an old pair of handcuffs from the days of the Civil War prison that occupied the land.

A series of articles called "Historical Bits of Burke" by Owen J. Remington were published in the BCCA Newsletter for Burke Community Civic Associations in the mid-1970s. Remington gives a chronological account of Burke history, starting with the American Indians. He does mention a J. William Harlow, "lovingly called the town hermit," Remington wrote, who could have been the same person that lived on the end of Lee Street in Old Burke. There were no dates with that part of Remington's account.

Remington goes through Silas Burke's life and marriage to Hanna Coffer, namesake of Coffer Road. The boundaries of the original Burke were Accotink Creek to the south, Guinea Road to the north, Ox Road to the west, Hooes Road and Rolling Road to the east. The area included plantations such as Burnside or Sydenstricker. Remington said that Pearl S. Buck was part of the Sydenstricker family, with the "S" standing for Sydenstricker.

The last battle of the Civil War was fought in Burke. On April 8, 1865, while Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met at Appomattox Court House to sign the surrender papers, a group of soldiers under Col. John Mosby's command heard about "loose women" who were in an inn, known as Brimstone Hill. The inn was owned and operated by Charles A. Arundel, at the intersection of Ox Road and Burke Lake Road. A battle broke out with the Confederate soldiers at the house and the 8th Illinois Cavalry, 202 Pennsylvania and Company D and H from Mosby's command.

Another battle was fought in Burke, according to Remington. In 1954 federal officials tried to build an airport — thought to be Dulles Airport — in Burke, and they were rebuffed. The action, Remington wrote, "resulted in the finest hour of neighborhood endeavor in staging what was often referred to as the Battle of the Airport. It brought everybody together as they have never responded since."