Family's New Fairfax Home Stuck in a Regulatory Forest
Trees Could Harm Blind Children, Parents Contend

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006; B05

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.

Fairfax requires builders in residential developments like the Bartlings' -- four homes on 10 acres called the Estates at Oakton Hollow -- to preserve trees on 20 percent of the property. The trees can be old or new, to replace those that were knocked down for construction. NV Homes planned to put a "significant portion" of the trees on the Bartlings' lot, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. This was partly because some of the other lots lie in a septic drain field that needs to be cleared, said Hugh Whitehead, a county urban forester.

The builder also recently cleared some trees on another lot it may develop in the subdivision, county officials said, prompting a new round of planning to replace them. In both cases, dozens of new trees are needed to make up for the old ones, Whitehead said.

Normally, the county allows trees on a private lot to be removed once the developer is released from bond. But in this case, NV Homes had violated the rules, and stricter requirements applied, officials said.

"It gets pretty sticky sometimes with homeowners wanting to do what they choose with their property," Whitehead said. "I'd certainly hope that most people want trees. 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."

Whitehead said he sympathizes with the Bartlings, who have tried to reach a resolution with the county and NV Homes as they pay $219 a night for lodging. The number of trees required plunged to 68 and then 50, and the builder and county dropped the requirement prohibiting the trees from being cut down, said the Bartlings' attorney, Gorham Clark. Last week, the Bartlings agreed to accept some trees but demanded $250,000 in compensation from NV Homes. In response, NV Homes threatened to terminate the Bartlings' contract and resell the house. Whitehead, asked about the Bartling case, said he is willing to accept fewer trees. "This is not a situation where I typically find myself," he said.

James Sack, NV Homes' general counsel, declined to comment.

The Bartlings are born-again Christians who said their faith led them to children with special needs. After their son Joel was born, fertility problems led them to adoption. They brought Hannah, 11, a bright fifth-grader who sings in the church choir, home from Korea nine years ago. David, a precocious 6-year-old from China, literally appeared on the couple's doorstep less than two years ago after another couple decided they could not handle a blind child. The year before, Karen Bartling had read in a publication for parents and teachers of blind children that Jesse, from Korea, and Abi, who had been abandoned malnourished on the streets of Calcutta, needed homes.

Life at the Towne Place Suites has been a mix of improvisation and anticipation. Everyone needed new clothes, and the children new toys. Five-year-olds Abi and Jesse, not good sleepers to begin with, are uncomfortable sharing beds with their older siblings, their mother said.

Meanwhile, with the lock on the interest rate on their mortgage about to expire, the Bartlings have taken to calling their predicament their Extreme Screwover.

"We're just sitting on the sidelines waiting for NV Homes to deliver us a home we contracted for," Joe Bartling said. "Since when are trees more important than people?"

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