Family's New Fairfax Home Stuck in a Regulatory Forest

This completed house in Oakton was built for Joe and Karen Bartling, but they cannot take possession until they, the builder and the county can resolve a dispute over trees.
This completed house in Oakton was built for Joe and Karen Bartling, but they cannot take possession until they, the builder and the county can resolve a dispute over trees. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

Their seven-bedroom, $2.2 million dream home is in spotless, move-in condition. It's an elegant hideaway on 1.6 acres in Oakton, set back from a winding, tree-lined road -- a perfect place for their four youngest children to grow up.

But for 36 days, Karen and Joe Bartling and their children have been homeless. Along with their college-age son and the family's Labrador retriever, they have been holed up in a tiny efficiency apartment in Chantilly with a pullout couch, all of their belongings in a storage locker.

The Bartlings can't move in until their builder plants 20 to 80 trees on their property that Fairfax County says are required in part because the builder cut down too many mature trees during construction.

But to the Bartlings, the trees are nothing but booby traps wrapped in wire and wooden stakes: Four of their five children -- who were adopted from Korea, China and India -- are blind. For them, trees are bumps and scrapes waiting to happen.

"I don't want my kids having black eyes running into trees all day," said Karen Bartling, 48. "These kids have enough obstacles in their lives. The last thing we want is trees in our yard."

In a suburb whose last patches of green space are disappearing, the prospect of a canopy of hickories, oaks and maples would be welcome to many homeowners. Not the Bartlings. "For our family, trees don't work," said Joe Bartling, 48, who works in the District as a forensic investigator. "Maybe for other families, trees work."

The Bartlings said they planned to build a swimming pool and put a swing set, trampoline and barbecue in the back yard, leaving precious little room for a forest. The trees would be scattered around the property, making it impossible to fence them off.

The odyssey started June 9, the day the Bartlings were supposed to close on their house on Coulter Lane. The piano mover arrived at 11 a.m. at their old, much smaller house on a forested lot in Oakton. The rest of the trucks were loaded by noon. Then the builder, NV Homes of McLean, called at 1 p.m. to cancel the closing, the Bartlings said. The county had denied the builder a permit for occupancy of the house.

The day before, an NV Homes representative had shown the Bartlings a new plan for their lot with more than 80 trees in the front and back yards, in addition to the row of old trees the builder had left at the edge of the property. The trees were not on the original lot plan. The couple did not agree to the new proposal, believing they could work it out after the closing.

What the Bartlings didn't know was that the county was requiring the builder to come up with a new tree conservation plan for the site after a neighbor notified the county that a contractor for NV Homes had illegally cleared a dozen 25-year-old, 100-foot trees during construction. This violated Fairfax's limits on clearing and grading.

Things got testy. NV Homes asked the Bartlings to sign a document agreeing to accept and maintain the 80 new trees and restrict any changes to the land, so they or any future owner would never cut down the trees. "Can you imagine paying that much money for a house and having someone telling you what you should do on your property?" Karen Bartling asked.

They called the county and got a lawyer and have been negotiating ever since. Yesterday, the county, the developer and the Bartlings reached a precarious agreement that could allow as few as 20 trees to be planted. But nothing is final.

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