Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpOur hometown faces tough choices between the pursuit of green (as in money) and the pursuit of green (as in environmentalism).

The County Board’s July 14 meeting showcased leaders resigned to tight budgets focused on infrastructure spending (metro, new schools) within limited government regulatory powers.

A symbol for the clash: A dawn redwood tree.

A championship specimen at the center of a mansion’s front yard on the flower-bedecked block of N. Ohio St. is threatened by a developer preparing to chop it down to make room for two homes. A neighbor I spoke to Saturday said most on the block “are not thrilled” with either prospect.

Builder Ross Richmond has not spoken publicly, but County Manager Mark Schwartz said he has met with staff.

But organizers and stewards in the Arlington Tree Action Group, backed by the Williamsburg Civic Association and a petition with 1,000 names, showed up Saturday. Twenty sported t-shirts saying “Please Save Our Trees” (the board is also monitoring doomed trees at Upton Hill and Lyon Park). And speakers like Jennifer Adelman, who grew up across from the redwood, tugged officials’ heartstrings with memories and hard science on trees’ impact on Chesapeake Bay health.

Board members were moved, but could make no promises given the owner’s rights and the fact that the previous owner never registered the prize tree. “We’re doing all we can with the toolbox we have,” five board members said. There’s room for negotiation in that the redwood lies in the resource protection area, Schwartz added.

“We have a set of strategies,” Chairman Katie Cristol said. But a bill in Richmond to give builders and homeowners more incentives to preserve trees failed.

An equally lukewarm solution came for the proposal in the county’s two-year, $3.4 billion Capital Improvement Plan to slash the Neighborhood Conservation Program by $24 million over 10 years.

Since 2001, that program funding improvements proposed by neighborhoods has delivered more than $75 million for projects such as sidewalks and streetlights. (Top beneficiaries: Aurora Highlands, Waverly Hills and Penrose.) But recent years brought a shift to more-expensive underground stormwater projects.

Program manager Tim McIntosh, speaking last month at the Old Glebe Civic Association, said that would be the first cut in a decade. Though $5 million is still in the pipeline, advocates fear the cuts would mean lessened long-term neighborhood engagement.

Rob Swennes, former chairman of the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee, said that panel had hoped for an even larger budget. “These program changes have come about almost entirely through staff recommendations rather than neighborhood enlargements,” he told me. “A bottom-up review is needed.”

That’s the view of board member John Vihstadt. Many of the projects approved back in 2008 are not completed, and six of 17 are significantly over budget, he told me. “There is no doubt it has done good work, but we need to acknowledge it needs a thorough scrubbing” to deliver projects in the “most efficient, cost-effective, equitable and timely manner possible.”

Cristol too thinks the program needs repairs. She has found it “exciting” when neighborhoods “come together and implement a vision collaboratively and collectively.” But most Arlingtonians want us to do it in a cost-effective manner.”

Faced on Saturday with a choice of putting an extra million into land acquisition or neighborhood conservation, board members negotiated publicly. Then they chose conservation.


Vivid Fact Department: New county staff numbers on Arlington’s growing footprint of “impervious features” (buildings, roads, sidewalks, parking lots) show that, at the current rate of construction, builders are adding the equivalent of the Pentagon’s 29-acre footprint every three-four years.

Those stats representing a victory of concrete over grass and trees were presented by County Board member Vihstadt July 14.

Accounting for 60 percent of the construction are single-family homes, which add the equivalent of another Pentagon every five-six years.