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    Monday, May 29, 2023

    East Lyme homeowners in battle over four trees

    Purba Mukerji, left, Ali Rangwala, right, and their daughter, Meera, 8, stand Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, by the row of trees in front of their East Lyme home. The family is in a dispute with the homeowners association of The Orchards housing development in which they live, over the spacing of the trees they planted on their property. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    East Lyme — You might think that a few peach trees would be a welcome addition along a street called Peach Lane in a subdivision called The Orchards.

    But you would be wrong.

    The neighborhood's homeowners association says a few trees planted in the front yard of 5 Peach Lane must go, contending they could hurt surrounding property values and the uniformity of the neighborhood.

    Management has cited the homeowners, Purba Mukerji and Ali Rangwala, for being in violation of the declaration of The Orchards of East Lyme Development Inc.

    While Mukerji and Rangwala don't particularly understand the stringency of the rules to begin with, their biggest concern is selective enforcement; they feel they're being discriminated against.

    "We've always been saying: This is fine, do it for everyone, not just us, and then we are fine," Mukerji said.

    The association first sent an enforcement letter to the couple nearly 14 months ago, and the matter remains unresolved. Mukerji and Rangwala have spent more than $1,000 in legal fees trying to keep their trees.

    So how did it come to this?

    Clarifications and correspondence

    Mukerji and Rangwala — she teaches economics at Connecticut College, while he is a professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute — moved into The Orchards in the spring of 2015.

    At that time, their front yard was bounded by two maple trees, which the developers planted. But that spring, the couple planted one willow tree, one oak tree and two peach trees along the street, along with peach, cherry and plum trees lining their driveway.

    Mukerji now counts 13 trees in the front yard and 14 in the back, trees she selected after consulting resources from the Connecticut College Arboretum.

    The board is not concerned with most of the trees, just the ones lining the street.

    The declaration of The Orchards prohibits the construction or erection of any improvement until the owner's application is approved by the board. It defines "improvements" as "any buildings, improvements or facilities constructed or to be constructed on the property."

    The declaration lists 16 examples that require approval, such as a swimming pool, patio, flag pole, fountain and fence.

    Seeing the listed improvements are all manmade, the owners of 5 Peach Lane didn't think a tree counted as an improvement. But board members assert that any attorney will say a tree counts as an improvement, and that homeowners should have reviewed the declaration with their attorney.

    In November 2015, Vision Management, the property manager, sent a notice to lot owners reviewing improvements and tree approval, in which it clarified that planting trees is an improvement.

    "A selling point of association living is that the association will maintain the community's uniform appearance," Mark Weiland of Vision Management wrote. He asked that any homeowner who has made an improvement without first applying retroactively complete the form within 30 days.

    Mukerji said she didn't fill out the form because it only pertained to tree removal and additions, but she did reach out to Weiland.

    In August 2017, Weiland sent the couple a letter stating they had until the end of the month to remove all street trees they planted, and that the charges for The Orchards to hire a landscape contractor for removal will be assessed against their lot. He said they were in violation of East Lyme zoning regulations.

    Mukerji objected to this, pointing out that zoning regulations state street trees shall be placed 4 feet from the curb, whereas hers are at 14 feet.

    Town Zoning Official Bill Mulholland said on Friday that this is an association issue, and that zoning does not regulate the planting of decorative trees on single-family lots, so long as they are planted on the lot.

    Since last August, property management has switched from Vision Management to Northeast Property Group.

    The board in July issued a resolution relaxing and clarifying rules for planting trees. It states that owners can plant trees in front yards without obtaining prior permission, as long as trees are at least 15 feet from the curb and at least 25 feet from one another, except for evergreen trees, which must be at least 3 feet apart.

    Since the 5 Peach Lane trees don't fall within these parameters, retroactive approval is not possible, according to property manager Eric Myers. Properties throughout The Orchards have trees outside these parameters, the couple said.

    In August, Myers wrote a letter that The Orchards of East Lyme Development Inc. is willing to move Mukerji and Rangwala's trees at its own expense, to a location more than 15 feet from the curb and 25 feet from one another.

    The board states that it tried to compromise but the couple were unwilling to do so. Mukerji asserts that if the trees are uprooted, they will probably die.

    It's the principle of the matter

    Since the owners didn't agree to this resolution, they were told to attend a hearing in front of the board on Sept. 24, and they hired an attorney, but then the hearing was canceled.

    Mukerji has sought to get public opinion on her side, posting in The Orchards' closed Facebook group and reaching out to state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme.

    Even though the hearing was postponed, residents brought up tree regulations at the Sept. 24 board meeting, and a spirited discussion ensued.

    Some association members said if someone moves into a development with a homeowners' association, they should recognize they need approval for improvements to their properties.

    The board expressed concern that the trees would grow to create a wall in front of 5 Peach Lane and could negatively impact the values of surrounding homes. Mukerji, who refused to attend the meeting, later noted that the trees in her front yard — including the willow — are dwarf trees that will only grow to 8 or 10 feet tall.

    Some attending the meeting expressed understanding of the board's views, while others felt this was all very silly — a waste of time and money.

    "The association has not taken any action yet to enforce the governing documents against these owners," attorney Gregory McCracken, representing the homeowners association, said in an email. "It is in the process of relaxing the requirements for exterior additions and alterations and obtaining more information on the trees."

    This includes bringing in tree experts, though Mukerji and Rangwala want the process to stop dragging on. Myers suggested setting up a "friendly meeting" with the couple, McCracken and the board president, but Mukerji and Rangwala are refusing.

    Mukerji feels safer having all communication in writing. Having let go of their legal counsel for cost reasons, they said they don't want to be at a meeting where the board has a lawyer and they don't.

    Mukerji keeps telling herself that all of this is just over a few trees and isn't a big deal, but to her it's about the principle of not being discriminated against. And coming here from India, she always has envisioned the U.S. as a place where "the rule of law actually works the way it's supposed to."

    "You come to the U.S., you work really hard, you study, you collect all your money, and then the first house you buy, you're hit with all this," Rangwala said.


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