Building buffers and burning bridges

by Ogi Overman

Let it be known: I didn’t ask for this fight. Over the years I’ve learned to pick my battles judiciously, but in this one I was given no choice. And once drawn into it, I merely reacted like any property owner would by trying to protect my interests and preserve what quality of life I had left.

After losing the zoning battle (by a 5-4 vote) that allowed McKinley Place, a 36-unit condo development on New Garden Road that abutted our property on Garden Lake Drive, to be built, the last hope for any vestige of privacy my wife and I had was in the fact that we had gotten it written in as a condition of zoning that a row of trees be planted along the property line. Since the 20-foot undisturbed buffer that was originally promised by the developer, Jim Eskridge, and his attorney, Marc Isaacson, had been obliterated the very first day the bulldozers started clear-cutting the wooded land, any element of trust I might have had was removed along with the 200-year-old oaks. That is precisely why we insisted that it be in writing that an evergreen buffer be established.

As the condos were under construction last summer, it became obvious that they were extending all the way up to the property line to cram in as many units as possible, thereby leaving no space at all for a buffer of any sort. I alerted Mr. Eskridge and he said he’d check with the landscaper, and the result was the six puny trees you see pictured below. As you can see, they are planted on the hill and, after a year’s growth, do not even rise to the bottom of the building. This, brothers and sisters, is the sorry excuse of a buffer we were promised.

Now, in the ensuing year, Janet and I were given a generous offer by another developer to sell our property for a large mixed-use project. Given all the deleterious changes in both the immediate and surrounding neighborhood and the fact that many of the reasons we bought the home six years ago have been victims of the degreening of Greensboro, we decided to take the offer and start over someplace else. Obviously, there was no point in pressing the issue of the buffer.

But then a funny thing happened. The city council denied the rezoning request, siding with the neighborhood over the developer. Stop the presses.

And then an even funnier thing happened. After the May 1 city council meeting, councilmember Florence Gatten was being interviewed by Rhinoceros Times editor John Hammer about a rezoning and annexation proposal on Horse Pen Creek Road. Fortunately (for me, unfortunately for her), the Triad’s best investigative journalist, Jordan Green, happened to be standing within earshot and took the following notes:

“Do I think that that kind of property that’s going to go commercial needs that buffer? No, I don’t. If I knew that a development was coming I would put up a fence. It’s like the Overmans want to complain that the Eskridges are building those condos. There is some incumbency that people who want to see trees plant some trees. I’m very big on individual responsibility.”

I too am big on individual responsibility, Mrs. Gatten, and I hereby take it as my personal responsibility to applaud you for not seeking reelection; the council will be better off without you. Further, I will work diligently to defeat any candidate you endorse in the future or anyone running for public office who even remotely shares your views on property rights.

Carrying your argument to its logical conclusion, if I, or any homeowner anywhere, intends to oppose encroachment, his tactic should be to plant some trees or put up a fence. In my case, I should have planted some trees as a buffer against… the trees. Because I needed to protect myself from those five acres of woods, I should have planted some trees? Oh, I could have built a fence, but since there is an ordinance that prohibits fences over six feet, mine would have shielded me from… nothing. Totally useless, since the condos are at least 20 feet above the grade of our home.

Again, following your logic, it should be the homeowners rather than the developers who bear the expense of buying the trees and/or fence and the sweat equity of planting and/or erecting them. If you want a buffer, build a buffer! How can you expect those poor, innocent developers to be responsible for everything? God knows they have enough to worry about.

This, Mrs. Gatten, is an affront to every homeowner in Greensboro.

Plus, since most developers have been working on a given project for two or tree years before the homeowner even gets the notice of an impending rezoning request, your logic requires that the homeowner should A) hire a private eye to shadow builders, real estate agents and developers so they’ll know in advance where their future projects will be located; B) develop ESP so they’ll know when to plant the trees so that they will be mature by the time the development is built out; or C) be proactive and plant some trees and build a fence just in case somebody someday decides to throw up some condos in your backyard. Do you even listen to what you’re saying, Mrs. Gatten?

Here’s the Gatten Doctrine, homeowners:

Developers have carte blanche to do whatever they bloody well please.

If there is a condo or bank or whatever in your backyard where woods once stood, it’s your own damn fault.

If you want woods, plant some trees.

If you want privacy, build a fence (but no higher than six feet).

And if you don’t like it, move. There are already too many whiners like the Overmans in Greensboro anyway.

Ogi may be reached at, heard Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. on “The Dusty Dunn Show” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on “Triad Today” Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMY 48.