To Suzanne L. Miller and other residents of Burke Manor in western Fairfax County, the stately, 100-year-old oak trees just beyond their back porches were a reassuring reminder of their area's fast-disappearing rural atmosphere.
So when a developer wanted to build a small neighborhood shopping center where the oaks grew, the Burke Manor Homeowners Association got a written agreement that 13 of the trees would be saved.
Despite the agreement, supposedly enforced by the county's Department of Environmental Management, all but one, possibly two, of the trees are dead or dying, and one simply disappeared.
"It looks to me as if the developer didn't honor the agreement," said Richard L. Hoff, who heads the department's arborist office. "The plan that came in would not allow the trees to survive."
Yet the plan was approved by Hoff's office and others in the department, one of the county's bigger agencies with a $6,474,170 annual budget and 296 employes. The department is charged with making sure houses are sited and built according to the state code and county ordinances. "Somewhere along the line something was overlooked," said Hoff. "We could have missed it ourselves."
For some members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, who are the sounding board for citizen complaints, the case of the dead and dying trees was just one more example in a catalogue of construction blunders and foulups that keep occurring despite the county's complicated inspection process.
Rightly or wrongly, most of the blame is laid at the door of the Department of Environmental Management, whose name, critics says, is a colossal misnomer.
Some of the blunders and foulups:
At Fairfax Club Estates, a subdivision south of Fairfax City, the construction engineering company designed a stormwater pond that had an overflow pipe "pointed like a cannon" at the backyards of the houses, according to supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale). The design had been approved by Environmental Management.
In a Springfield subdivision, an embankment up with railroad ties now is listing 30 degrees, endangering the sidewalk above. Supervisor Marie B. Travesky (R-Springfield) said one of Environmental Management's inspectors told her there's nothing in the county code requiring the builder to brace the ties. "But what about common sense? she asks.
At Burke Centre, a builder unwittingly flopped his site plan on a culde-sac. Because of the blunder, which was never caught by Environmental Management, according to Travesky, some houses had hardly any yards, and some of them even may be sited on the wrong property. Because department approval means there is no legal remedy, "we're using sheer friendly persuasion" to correct the problem, Travesky said.
In Lee District, according to supervisor Joseph Alexander (D), the Kings Landing subdivision was built on a hill with department-approved drainage. With the first heavy rain, water cascaded down on the Virginia Hills subdivision below. "For the life of me, I can't figure out what happened," said Alexander, who persuaded the Kings Landing builder to make some voluntary drainage corrections.
Explanations for the problem vary. One county official says the department "has been given so many more responsibilities over the years that a lot of people in it have been left behind. They are dealing with matters that are too complex for them. Plus, everybody has a stack of work on his desk, so he says, 'Do I do a good job or do I do it fast?'"
The department is inundated with work. About 8,000 houses are built annually in Fairfax County's current building room. The department received 996 complaints last year from owners of new homes, up from 952 the year before.
Many of the owners groused about cosmetic defects not covered by the building code and other regulations, but a number of grievances were more serious: poor drainage, wet basements and other problems that come under the department's jurisdiction.
Even so, Travesky and other supervisors say the agency's inspectors could be "more sensitive" to problems.
On the other hand, some supervisors say, the department has not always been backed up by the Commonwealth's Attorney's office and the courts when builders have allegedly thumbed their noses at requirements.
"Cases have languished both in the courts and the prosecutor's office," travesky says.
"That's bull," said Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., "What they [the supervisors] just don't understand is that the criminal remedy is a bad remedy for these violations."
Horan said the supervisors should seek new legislation at the General Assembly that would permit both a criminal and civil remedy. Then Horan said, the county could go directly after the offending builder, not just the bulldozer operator or laborer following directions.
Supervisor Alexander said he intends to propose such legislation at next Monday's board meeting. But he also said, "I believe we need some new concepts in the department. We need some more technical capability and better engineering knowledge."
The man in the eye of the storm, department director Larry R. Coons, is generally credited with bringing some organization to an agency that grew topsy-turvy with Fairfax. Coons, an administrator by profession, tries to stay out of the arguing.
"It isn't an easy process [review and inspection] from the standpoint of the number of projects involved," he said. "As for attitude, sensitivity and communication, we're making changes."
One of the changes was made recently. It requires special agreements made by developers to be stapled to site plans. But the change is too late for the oak trees behind Burke Manor.