When Joe and Lee Kester decided to build their dream house three years ago in the newly developed subdivision of Brookfield Woods in Chantilly, they imagined a canopy of huge white oak trees surrounding their bilevel home. Some of their neighbors had similar dreams.
To make their dreams come true, the soon-to-be residents of the forested area on the western edge of Fairfax County paid developers $2,000 extra for homes with wooded lots.
But when they moved into their homes, about 15 families found few if any trees on the lots. Most of the trees, which were more than 100 years old and more than 20 inches in diameter, had been killed or severely damaged during construction of the homes, according to Fairfax County Arborist Catherine Riley-Hall. The builders cut down many of the trees, leaving firewood and huge stumps on residents' lawns.
"It looks more like Brookfield Stumps than Brookfield Woods," said a disgruntled Joe Kester of 13807 Leighfield St. Even most of the remaining trees should have been taken down because they were dying, residents later learned from county arborists.
Their dreams of homes with wooded lots shattered, about a dozen residents say they want their $2,000 refunded from the developer, Manhatten Homes.
"We understand that the builder could not save the trees, but it is disturbing to know that we paid extra money for something that the builder could not deliver," said Jerry Brown of 13814 Leighfield St.
According to Hall, there was no way the centennial trees could have survived the constant dynamite blasting of bedrock, digging and excavation.
"Blasting and trees that old don't mix. The shakeup upsets the soil, breaks the root system and alters the water supply," she said. Hall also said dirt piled up against trees compacted and smothered tree roots. "Younger trees are more adaptable to changes in the environment, but these had little chance of survival."
Larry Dodson, coowner of Manhatten Homes, said his company is not to be blamed for the death of the trees. "We very specifically told the buyers in the contracts that we were not responsibile for the trees. We have done nothing wrong."
The contract states: " . . . the seller assumes no responsibility for any existing trees on the premises."
Several of the residents do not see it that way.
"True, there is a vague statement in very fine print about the developer's responsibility for the trees, but I had about 12 families in my house for a meeting with the county officials who said they did not know they would ever lose their trees," said John McEwan of 13800 Leighfield St.
The developer's attorney, in a letter to the Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs, stated that this part of the contract "was discussed at length with each purchaser; each purchaser knew that the house was to be constructed inasmuch as they had looked at the vacant lot, and the builder did not at any time make any warranties as to the perpetuation of the trees."
Some residents deny such discussions. "If I knew that I was not going to have a wooded lot, do you think I would have paid $2,000?" Kester said.
The Department of Consumer Affairs, which tries to mediate such disputes, is investigating but would not comment on the validity of the developer's contract or the residents' complaints.
Dodson said that three years of drought in the area in addition to construction probably caused the trees to die. But he said, "We did not know that the trees were going to die."
"If I sell you a horse and in six months it dies, do you expect to get your money back? Besides, do you think I would be dumb enough to build model homes with trees that were going to die?"
"We are not a fly-by-night operation," Dodson said. "We have been in the business for more than 25 years, and I have been building homes since I was 15. We have a good reputation, and we have never had any problems with trees."
Dodson said his company has "fulfilled every construction code requirement." But Hall said the Fairfax County Department of Environmental Management shows no record of a required preconstruction meeting between Manhatten Homes and county arborists to discuss development plans, topography, tree preservation, size and location of lots.
"If the developers had had this meeting, they would have known that the trees would not have survived construction," Hall said.
Many developers violate the preconstruction meeting requirement, Hall said, risking a slap-on-the-wrist fine of up to $500 rather than lose time and money delaying construction.
The Brookfield Woods development, with homes costing upwards of $90,000, came with the option of wooded lots. When Kester bought his wooded lot in 1979, there were "no less than eight large oak trees" on the property, he said. By the time the home was completed, five trees remained. Within one week after Kester moved into his home, two trees had to be removed because they were dying.
The Department of Environmental Management requires builders to remove trees that have been damaged during construction and to save or replace those considered to be in preservation areas.
Dodson said Manhatten Homes has spent about $30,000 to cut down and replace about 30 trees on residents' properties, even dying trees that the arborists did not know about. "We took down dying trees at no charge to residents and made firewood for them. We have bent over backwards to help these people," he said.
But some residents say it was a far cry from what they paid for. They also claim they have gone to great expense to save the few remaining trees and to have stumps grated down or removed from their lawns.