Festive Holiday Lights on Downtown Trees May Finally Happen in the City

City Director of Public Works Michael Collins (far left) was unenthusiastic about the idea of lighting the trees of in downtown Falls Church. (Photo: News-Press)
City Director of Public Works Michael Collins (far left) was unenthusiastic about the idea of lighting the trees of in downtown Falls Church. (Photo: News-Press)

Behind the scenes for most of the last two decades, a running battle between the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and the arborist’s office at City Hall has been in play, and now after all this time there may be a break in the situation.

The Chamber of Commerce’s simple petition has always been to allow sparkly lights on the sidewalk trees in the first few blocks of W. Broad St. and maybe in one or two other places, as well. You know those cheerful tree lights that go up all over downtown D.C. or in areas like Shirlington and the Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia? They go up to celebrate the holiday season, and to attract holiday shoppers to the areas where they are on display.

But no, not for Falls Church, the proud veteran of 36 annual Tree City, USA awards! No such violation of pristine trees has been allowed to happen here. At least until now.

For years the official line out of City Hall, namely, the office of the City arborist, was that hanging such lights on trees is lethal to those trees. Arborists in the past have been so protective of the sidewalk trees, for example, that they were allowed to grow over signage of merchants, and complaints from the Chamber of Commerce fell on deaf ears.

It was so bad, reflected Sally Cole, executive director of the Chamber, that there was a time when the City’s volunteer Tree Commission was dominated by persons who shared the arborist’s view and was chaired at one point by a citizen who pronounced that sparkly lights on trees would happen “over my dead body.”

But now it seems a breakthrough has accompanied the City’s hiring of a new arborist this summer.

Katherine Sutalo started here on June 2, and when the News-Press learned that she was pro-tree lights, an interview was set up and published in mid-August announcing that new viewpoint.

The news was not lost on Cole and other Chamber leaders, who at their last board of directors meeting moved to seek an official sanction for this holiday season.

Sutalo’s response was to present the Chamber board with a detailed report on how much it would cost per tree to do this, proposing that a solar panel-powered option would be preferable. However, she wrote, “Using solar panels may involve some trial and error, since according to one of the installation manuals, light from the businesses or streetlights might interfere with the mechanism switching on at night.”

She suggested an alternative could be LED lights which can run on AA batteries if necessary.

She priced out the estimated cost of lighting per tree to be $270 to $275, including $70.61 for materials and $200 labor ($100 to install and $100 to uninstall).

She offered an inventory of trees that could be involved, including 13 on the north side of the 100 block of W. Broad, 10 in the City-owned mini-park in the middle of the block, 10 trees on the north side of the 200 block, and four trees at Ireland’s Four Provinces and three at the BB&T on the south side of the 100 block.

Council member Phil Duncan, who is the Council’s liaison to the Chamber of Commerce, in a memo to his Council colleagues called such a move “a first step on the long road to downtown improvement, in cooperation with the Chamber and City staff.” The total package that Reich spelled out could be done for $20,000, and suggested that the “sum is so modest that tree lighting could be handled administratively, within current accounts.”

Duncan’s memo sparked a lively discussion despite the late hour of this Monday’s City Council work session, and the matter will come before a full business meeting of the Council for a potential vote this Monday.

Cole told the News-Press that some businesses are planning to take on lighting the trees in front of their establishment on their own, but in the Council discussion, it was expressed that this could create a chaotic effect.

Mike Collins, the City’s Director of Public Works, was unenthusiastic about the idea during the discussion, but Vice Mayor David Snyder, who has been on the City Council since 1994, told of the decades-long history to the issue and expressed his frustration about that.

In her August interview in the News-Press, the Seattle area native Sutalo said she’s “OK with holiday lights on trees, sculpting damaged trees into statues and building tree houses” because “the more people interact with trees in a positive manner, the more they’ll care about the fate of the trees.”