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Oakton Neighbors Wrangle Over Trees

HOA at odds with some residents over trees.

The trees in front of their house were part of the reason Tom Marley and fiancee Jamie Hurst moved to the Blakelee townhouse development in Oakton.

"You look out the window all you see is trees," said Marley. "When you're finally somewhere, wherever you call home, you want to look out and see something pleasing."

But the trees might not be there forever.

In August, the Blakelee Homeowners Association notified residents that they were planning on removing about 20 red maple trees growing along the sidewalks, in between the townhouses and parking lot, and in the playground area. Several of the trees were unhealthy or dying, they said, and others were in danger of disrupting the sidewalk with root growth and causing safety hazards.

The tree removal plan angered some residents. "We looked outside and saw chain saws and trees falling down and said, 'My God, what are they doing?'" said Marley, a contractor. "Once the trees are gone, they're gone."

The trees were scheduled to be removed Monday, Aug. 15, but Marley and some other neighbors wrote a letter to the HOA and the removal was postponed. On Monday, Sept. 12, the Blakelee Homeowners Association called a meeting with residents to discuss the issue.

"It's a waiting situation now," said HOA president Ann Tennison. "We've been talking to independent arborists, comparing information and figuring out what [we should] be doing. Once we are able to do that, the plan is to give homeowners an opportunity to get the information."

The homeowners association based its decision on the counsel of an independent arborist it had hired to look at the trees, said treasurer Robbie Barnes. The arborist found several dead trees in the playground area of the apartments, she said, and tree removers cut them down.

"For years, those trees had not been maintenanced at all," said Barnes, who lived in Blakelee for 11 years. "Yes, they're beautiful old trees, some of them, but you can't assume that all trees are supposed to live for 100 years."

Barnes mentioned silver maples, a related tree breed that is problematic to maintain in a development like Blakelee, a square of 77 townhouses surrounded by a parking lot. It was built in the mid-1970's, she said.

"Developers put them in because they grow fast, but they cause problems," said Barnes, citing sidewalk buckling and disruption of cable and pipelines. "I was shocked when I really started reading online about all these trees. They're very susceptible to disease."

According to the Fairfax County Public Facilities Manual, red maples (the tree found in Blakelee) is hardier than silver maples, which have minimal ability to resist injury, tolerate climate change or withstand impacts to the roots. Red maple still has problems with weak wood, said the manual.

All maples have wide and shallow root spreads that disrupt sidewalks and asphalt, said Marley, who made an appointment with Fairfax County Urban Forest Management (a division of the Department of Public Works) to come look at the trees.

UFM COMPLETED a general review of the trees and made comments in a report to clarify the issues involved in the case. According to the report, not all the trees on the Blakelee property are diseased, and no tree was classified as a "high risk of failure."

"Staff went out and looked at it, and some of the trees are heaving the sidewalk, while others may sometime in the future," said Doug Petersen, section chief of Forest Conservation at UFM. "Some are not in good condition."

"Wholesale removal" of the trees is not the only option for the property, said Petersen. He recommended that a private arborist inventory all trees individually.

"They should maybe do some sort of sustained management over two or three years instead of just whacking everything down," said Petersen, suggesting crown pruning (pruning the top of the tree), root pruning and mulching as alternate options.

"Years ago, we looked into whacking off roots but it is only a short term solution that doesn’t take care of girdling roots, disease, or underground damage," said Barnes. "We need to look at the long term."

If the trees did end up being removed, said Barnes, the HOA would replace them with a hardier tree such as a little-leaf linden.

That did not stop some residents from power-washing the orange paint off the bases of trees designated for removal, and from signing a letter opposing the tree removal.

Barnes said that the community's concern about the trees is less than it appears, however. Several people have come to her to say that they don't agree with the petition they signed, she said. She also questions the HOA's responsibility to let residents know about their actions.

"Are we supposed to be going to the community?" she said. "[Residents] elect a board to maintain the community and so we were doing what covenants allow us to do, and attempting to maintain the community. Technically, we don’t have to take anything from [residents] into consideration."

According to the Fairfax County Community Association Manual, which provides guidelines for community associations, board resolutions fall into two categories: administrative, which address routine matters; and policy resolutions, which are voted upon. The tree removal was a routine maintenance matter, said Barnes, and so did not need to be voted upon.

Homeowners associations, a suburban phenomenon, are largely self-regulatory.

"Any HOA's responsibility overall is to maintain and care for the property," said Tennison. "Our role is no different than any other."

Residents in the Blakelee townhouse development keep somewhat to themselves, said Marley, but when it comes to the trees, they band together. About 20 residents showed up to the meeting about the trees, said resident Dennis Allerton, who wrote a letter about tree removal and took it around the neighborhood. "When I took the letter around, people came to the door and said, 'Thank you for doing something.'"

"The community is pulling together," said Marley. "The trees are saving the community."