Janet Welsh said she was on the phone with her twin sister, so she wasn't paying attention when a truck carrying chain saws pulled down her quiet street in Ashburn Village. Three workers hopped out and began cutting limbs from her 30-foot Bradford pear tree.
The crewmen had already turned two cherry trees into stumps next door at Karen Luft's house, and after dispatching Welsh's pear, they were planning next to down three dogwoods and a spruce in Frank Barkasy's yard.
But Barkasy, a 66-year-old government contractor who had just returned from a month of relief work in Louisiana, called the sheriff and ran outside in his stocking feet to stand in front of Welsh's tree, blocking the crew's work, until deputies arrived.
"This is ludicrous," Barkasy said. "Cutting down perfectly good trees, for what? They didn't bother anyone for the 12 years that I lived here."
The standoff ended when a representative of Ashburn Village Development Corp., the developer of the neighborhood, sent the crew away and gave the neighbors a week to see if they had any recourse to stop the cutting for good.
The tree cutters, it turned out, were hired by the developer to comply with Virginia Department of Transportation standards.
And their arrival on Jersey Mills Place on Monday raised a property-rights question the homeowners thought was long settled, after more than a decade of establishing roots in their houses and yards: Whose land is it anyway?
"Most citizens think that the edge of the pavement is where their property begins, but it's not," said Gary Clare, chief engineer at Loudoun County's Department of Building and Development.
The actual property line usually stops several feet before the curb, Clare said. The land beyond that, as in the case of the Jersey Mills neighbors, is called the right-of-way easement, and it's county property.
Included in the ream of papers that homebuyers get at closing is a map, called a surveying plat, that shows the property lines, Clare said, and it's very important for new residents to take that map into account when building or landscaping.
Ashburn Village Development Corp. has been maintaining the roads since the subdivision was built, but its intention was always at some point to turn over most of the roads to the state's care.
VDOT requires, though, that the roads meet certain standards before the agency will assume responsibility for them. One is clearing all trees and shrubs within the right-of-way easement. In Loudoun that area generally extends six or seven feet from the curb, said Ryan Hall, a VDOT spokesman.
Hall said the regulations are informed by federal minimum standards and are driven primarily by safety concerns, so that drivers have a clear line of sight while backing out of driveways or coming around corners.
The homeowners association sent out notices warning residents that the tree cutters were coming.
But Welsh, who joined Barkasy in protesting the tree removal, said the standards seem arbitrary. Another neighbor's big tree, on the corner, won't be cut down because it is a few inches outside the easement. But a three-foot-high hedge that's a few inches inside would be. She also said a private cul-de-sac nearby will not have any of its landscaping touched, while her public cul-de-sac would be affected.
Determined to find a solution, Welsh and Barkasy started making phone calls.
They called their county supervisor, Lori Waters (R-Broad Run), Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and were told to write letters.
"We can't wait six weeks for an answer," Welsh said.
Danny Davis, an assistant to Waters, suggested Ashburn Village residents who have planted close to the curb should lobby VDOT or state legislators to make changes to the agency's regulations. But he acknowledged such lobbying probably won't help them now if the tree cutters are returning this week.
Bill Welsh, Janet's husband, contacted a real estate lawyer to find out about obtaining a court injunction.
"I've never been any kind of activist, but it really upset me when they started chopping down these trees," said Janet Welsh, a 53-year-old independent contractor for a quality assurance company.
The process of preparing the roads for VDOT is slow and often leads to disgruntled residents, said Rick Clements, president of the Ashburn Village Homeowners Association.
"You could follow the progress of roads being turned over by the complaints," he said.
The most recent flare-up occurred in May over driveway aprons, he said. According to VDOT regulations, entrances from the street need to be 16 feet wide for a two-car garage and 20 feet wide for a three-car garage. At many houses, the entrances were narrower, so the developer extended the concrete aprons, but not the asphalt driveways adjoining them, leaving triangles of grass in the middle, until neighbors protested in meeting after meeting.
"The whole thing has been a very painful process," said Luft, who also joined the chorus of complainers after her trees were downed.
But Janet Welsh said she isn't giving up. She said several more people from her street have gotten involved, and they are starting a letter-writing campaign and telling residents of other parts of the development. Welsh said she plans to get in touch with some environmental groups that she thinks might be able to help get the developer's or VDOT's attention.
"I just think they need to rethink this," she said.