Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Restoration to Remove Rare Naturalized Area of F.C.

By Cindy Chojnacky

I am concerned over the proposed “restoration” of Coe Branch, a tributary of Tripps Run in “Howard E. Herman Stream Valley Park” between Broad Street and T.J. Elementary School. The $1.2 million project will “daylight” 500 feet of stream now piped, completely relocate Coe Branch and in the process, cut down 400 trees – changing one of the few “naturalized” areas in Falls Church City to an engineered greenway. I know City officials have met with Rees Place (where I live) property owners and the community. So I apologize for coming to this issue so late in the process. I understand the need to shift the stream course off the Falls Park (Rees Place) neighborhood boundary. The townhouses were built too close to the drainage in the 1990s. However a million dollar project to completely convert the beloved “TJ Woods” to a “groomed” park seems like expensive overkill.

We moved into our new townhouse in Rees Place in 1999. The area behind our lot was mostly open field and a foundation from an earlier building. Multifloral rose, English ivy and other exotic plants ruled where roadbed gravel allowed except for several large vine-covered trees. My forester husband cut the vines and rescued the trees; and removed more vines from tree seedlings that kept showing up. Today this small space (directly behind our townhouse block) hosts nearly 40 trees. Those that grew from seedlings are nearly as large (in diameter) as the original cherry, walnut and magnolia. Besides tulip poplar, this young forest also boasts elm, maple, oak, river birch, sweetgum and eastern red cedar. The trees and even invasive shrubs and herbs are slowly rebuilding soil (from decomposing plants, leaves, and branches) atop the gravel. Community projects have removed invasive species, picked up garbage and improved a trail used by children enroute to school. Dog walkers and joggers also use it daily.

April 4, 1999. The site behind Reeds Place along Coe Branch was an open field. The Easter basket (bottom, left) is on the foundation of an old building. (Photo: Cindy Chojnacky)

Depending on season, the trees are home and feeding area to cardinals, jays, woodpeckers and warblers; a perch for hawks and a rest stop for neo-tropical migrants in the spring and fall. A family of foxes lives in these woods; in the spring, a mallard duck pair often frequents the pools of Coe Branch. Year-round, squirrels do acrobatics on the ghostly grey or leafy branches. Coe Branch streamside behind my townhouse is a showcase of natural regeneration and resilience. From a graveled farm road, it has restored itself in 15 years. This area was mostly “reforested” by the natural process of plant-soil building and seed dispersal aided by birds and squirrels along with a little human help from pruning shears.

Ironically, this natural area was originally slated for development but the multiple landowners could not agree on the project. We were delighted when the city bought the land, made plans for a natural park and even bought an adjacent house with plans for a nature center (later abandoned). The “restoration” project seems to violate master plan themes such as interpretive park for environmental education, nature trail and demonstration area for stream valley natural resources protection. (Read plan at http://www.fallschurchva.gov/content/government/departments/recparks/parks/parkplans/hehsvpmasterplan.pdf). It saddens me to see this natural restoration site replaced with an over-engineered greenway so like every other park in the city or adjacent counties.

December 26, 2013. Almost 40 new trees have grown up on the site. The sled
marks the same spot on the “foundation” (now covered with ivy) as the Easter basket in 1999 photo.

The News-Press did not cover the December 17 community hearing, so I don’t know how it went. Perhaps others have raised concerns and I am just out of the loop. Is it too late to propose an alternative solution? The project is slated to start in February 2014. More naturalized solutions could include adding coarse woody material to the creek and some creative rock work to slow water in current channel. Yes, the creek floods with heavy storms and/or hurricanes but it is a riparian (streamside) area; we chose to build/live in it, and flooding will probably never reach the townhouses unless there are many more large scale developments upstream. Trails can be re-mulched and board walked in critical areas. The pipe could be closed and the lower part of stream rerouted where it currently floods. I imagine a smaller rerouting would require only cutting a few trees including those deemed hazardous. Instead of an engineered “fix,” what about exploring work with a graduate student (possibly from the Northern Virginia Center, Falls Church City campus) to design a tree-friendly stream restoration project? This could be coordinated with volunteers. And yes, as a neighbor with communication and public relations skills, I would be glad to volunteer time to help organize such an effort as long as we live in the City and own a home on the Coe Branch.

Cutting 400 trees will result in loss of carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, stormwater retention, cooling and the serenity offered by this urban forest. The current project looks like “pave paradise, put in a parking lot.” I am sad to see it. And curious if David and I are the only ones grieved to lose this pretty forest in our back yard.