Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


The tear-down trend in our home-sales market continues apace. But a few mighty oaks may slow the demolitions that are putting much real estate beyond the financial reach of average local American dreamers.

Arlington’s tree stewards — a label far more sophisticated than the epithet tree-hugger — last month banded together under the banner of the Arlington Tree Action Group.

I sat in with several dozen from neighborhoods across the county in a leafy private home alongside the lush setting of Donaldson Run. The county government that views itself as green will be hearing from them.

“It breaks our hearts to see old [Civil War-era] trees torn down,” said one. “Big developments are destroying the beauty of Arlington,” said another. A big decision to loosen zoning requirements “made by a few people in the county a decade ago is being carried out despite new information and citizen concern.”

Group members know that Arlington’s Urban Forestry Commission and well-intentioned staff are devoted to environmental protections of the tree canopy so vital to air quality and water drainage – not to mention aesthetic grandeur.

There’s a feeling that powerful market forces exploited by builders have tied the hands of county leaders who, some say, are addicted to tax revenues from newly built luxury homes. In the Penrose neighborhood, one participant said, two acres of virgin forest were bulldozed, inviting in mice and rats.

One Yorktown High School student said tree protection was a good place for Arlington to start to address climate change.

Solutions aren’t simple. The action group would start by assembling a critical mass to apply pressure.

“Some very active negative publicity” for developers who clear-cut trees, for example. Requiring permits to chop trees of a certain size; challenging builders whose homes exceed the 40 percent lot allowance; prodding the county to appoint a tree ombudsman; creating a builder-financed tree preservation fund.

The tree group will blitz the Planning Commission, and members are filing comments on the current updating of the public spaces master plan.

County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol told me she is sympathetic, citing tear-down moratoria elsewhere.

“Unfortunately, current provisions in the county code – which includes a tree preservation ordinance — maximize the state’s enabling authority for tree preservation,” Cristol said. “I don’t think this means our hands are tied, only that we have to be more creative in giving alternatives to an activity we cannot outright ban. If residents, or new owners, of a property can more easily add value to an existing structure, they will have options other than a tear-down.” That means accessory dwellings and zoning improvements for non-conforming homes.

Such ideas are echoed by board candidate Erik Gutshall, who has made middle-class housing a theme. There is a connection between losing tree canopy and housing stock, he said. Most doable now is exploring “voluntary incentives.” Example: “You petition the county with an application to have it designate one or more trees on your yard as `specimen trees.’ That protects them from removal or injury even after the home is sold,” he said.

Gutshall would also investigate real estate tax breaks within property assessments for homeowners who preserve trees. Builders could be given credit for keeping trees as part of their stormwater management plan.

“We can’t change the fundamental equation,” Gutshall said. “But there’s more we can do on the margins.”To honor God’s trees.


Perhaps you missed the fun confessions early this summer on the nostalgia website “I Grew Up in Arlington, Va. “

A challenge was posted: Recall where you had your first drink. Among the unforgotten recollections: “Mine was behind the High’s in Westover.” “It was probably Fort Scott Park, Boons Farm or Schlitz!”  “Overlee pool in the woods behind the houses on 23rd St.”

My favorite: “Purloined bourbon out of a plastic ketchup dispenser while walking to Bailey’s Crossroads Fair Lanes” bowling alley.