- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

When Felice Robinson moved into her classic Sears catalog house in Northeast Washington’s Brookland neighborhood five years ago, one of the things that impressed her the most was the landscaping.

“At one time, it was the crown jewel of the block,” says Miss Robinson, a lawyer who was attracted to this quiet neighborhood of tree-lined streets. “There’s dogwood, magnolias and a whole variety of blooming trees.”

For some new homeowners, trees can be an essential part of any landscape, adding value as well as shade. But what happens when your tree or shrub is another homeowner’s headache? And what happens when you want to save a tree, even if you’re planning to move away? Who can decide whether a tree should stay or go?

Over the years, what had been a source of pure pleasure for Miss Robinson started to cause her no small measure of consternation, thanks to a neighbor’s tree that casts a long shadow — right over the property line and into her yard.

“He doesn’t prune, and my Chinese maples can’t get enough sun,” Miss Robinson says.

So now she has a dilemma. Should she approach her neighbor and ask him to split the cost of pruning the tree, which she reckons would be upward of $700, or should she try to preserve their relationship by assuming the burden on her own? She’s leaning toward the latter.

“It’s a delicate situation,” she says. “We’re both not moving anytime soon. I don’t want to alienate my neighbor.”

To prune or not to prune? The question illustrates one argument in favor of homeowners’ associations, which establish and enforce rules that take the fight out of the neighbors’ hands.

Today’s homeowners’ associations (HOAs) are an interesting combination of business savvy and community-mindedness. Most new developments in the suburbs have associations attached to them.

The Community Associations Institute, a national nonprofit association based in Alexandria, reports that there are 274,000 community associations in the United States, with some 54.6 million Americans living in an association-managed community. Community associations comprise condominium and homeowners associations, cooperatives and planned communities. About 6,000 to 8,000 such associations are formed each year. Columbia and Reston are among the largest managed communities in the country, the CAI says.

Many local jurisdictions encourage homeowners’ associations because they shift the burden for building roads, sewers and other services to those who are most directly affected. In the greater Washington area, HOAs take on everything from snow removal to block parties. They’ll tackle tree removal if they need to.

At the Exeter community in Leesburg, Va., for example, a homeowner wanting to take down a tree would first request an architectural-change form, and the proposal would go before the HOA board for review.

There, the plea would be considered in light of its location, health and place in the overall scheme for the community.

That’s fairly typical, says Richard Thompson, a columnist for Realty Times and founder of Regenesis (www.regenesis.net), a consulting service for homeowners’ associations across the country that seeks workable solutions to problems such as tree removal.

“Homeowners’ associations generally have a lot of power, politically and in the larger community,” Mr. Thompson says.

Most HOAs include a governing board made up of homeowners who enforce the rules of the community and decide how much to assess the membership for basic maintenance or special projects.

However, HOAs can prove problematic when homeowners try to put their own stamp on their property. Outbuildings and lawn ornaments, paint colors and even flagpoles all can come under the scrutiny of a governing board that might see deviation from the norm as presaging a decline in property values.

Anything outside your home is essentially subject to a communal standard, even if you’ve bought and paid for it. Associations make use of special covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCRs), which are part of the deal when the house is purchased. Altering CCRs typically requires a 70 percent approval of the membership — read that: nearly impossible.

Make sure you read the CCRs before you buy the home. Don’t be put off by the fine print. That’s where you’ll find out what exactly you can and can’t do.

Trees can be a special problem, says Mr. Thompson, because developers frequently fail to provide for their plantings with an eye on the long term.

“They frequently overplant,” he says. “Twenty years later, there’s too much shade, the trees are cramped, and you may have a debris problem.”

So HOAs resort to “selective removal,” taking down some trees and leaving others. The problem for the homeowner comes when your tree is selected — or not — and it runs contrary to your wishes.

Mr. Thompson counsels HOAs to hire a professional to help deal with tree issues. Arborists can help to manage the landscape by determining which trees should stay or go. They may even find that some trees slated for removal can be saved by skillful pruning. Comprehensive evaluation is key.

“You want to address things globally, not personally,” he says. “A professional can address the issue from a number of different perspectives.”

That’s small comfort, however, to the homeowner who feels an affinity for the tree he’s watched grow from a sapling. What was once considered an individual asset has proved to be neighborhood property.

What’s a homeowner to do? In this case, there is not much that can be done. Homeowners, after all, agree when they sign their contract to abide by the dictates of the HOA. Just like Miss Robinson, homeowners working under the auspices of an HOA will have to decide whether the problems associated with taking on one’s neighbor are worth saving the tree.

HOAs are less common in the District, where much of the housing is older. The tree stock is older, too, meaning that emotional attachments can grow even stronger.

D.C. residents have their own outside agency to contend with when it comes to trees. The District Department of Transportation has special regulations governing tree removal. Certain trees, those larger than 55 inches in circumference, are considered “special trees.” Homeowners wishing to remove them must get a permit that is granted only under certain conditions. Whether the tree is on your property doesn’t matter.

Special trees that constitute a safety hazard or invasive species such as mulberry, ailanthus and Norway maple are subject to removal.

Property owners who promise to plant as many small trees as are necessary to equal the circumference of the one being removed are likely to get a permit, along with those who promise to pay $35 for every inch of circumference of the tree they wish to remove. Owners may also work out a combination of the two provisions.

Thinking of taking that tree down anyway? Think again. Fines for illegal tree removal run in the thousands.

Beware: Some trees you think are yours may not be, says Barry Levy, a Realtor who works in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

“A lot of people think that their property goes to the street line, but it doesn’t,” he says. “Homeowners need to determine whether they actually own the tree.”

Homeowners should first check the plat to see where property lines lie, Mr. Levy says.

If you do find that the tree you love is not your own, you may “adopt” it through D.C. Greenworks’ tree-keeper program.

“Street trees give such a sense of greenery, nature and life,” says Bethie Miller, community outreach organizer for D.C. Greenworks, a nonprofit organization that provides job training, landscaping and gardening assistance to urban residents.

The tree-keeper program encourages people to adopt one of Washington’s 100,000 “street” trees and offers advice and training on how to keep them healthy.

Suppose you’re a seller with a “special” tree all your own. It may be one your grandmother planted, or your grandchildren, or one that you’ve always just liked. Is there something you can do to ensure that your tree won’t be taken down when you sell?

Not really, most real estate agents say.

“If you really love it, take it with you,” says Ann Malcolm of Malcolm Real Estate Inc. in Northwest. “You can write it as a special exclusion.”

Contracts usually specify that anything attached to the real estate conveys. So if you really want to save that tree, you’ll need to work hard from the front end. It’s up to the seller to specify what does not convey. If it’s not specified, it goes with the sale. And once it goes, it goes.

“As a seller, there’s not much you can do to protect a tree with any degree of certainty,” Mr. Levy says. “An enforceable covenant could apply, but the more teeth you put into an agreement like that, the harder it is to get someone to agree to it. I’d try to find a buyer who loves trees.”

Meanwhile, Miss Robinson has decided to put her disposable income into restoring her yard into a showplace.

“I want to make it like it was,” she says. “The trees here are really something to see.”

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