Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Mighty oaks are not as mighty as homebuilders with chainsaws. Still, tree policy changes are a-blooming.

In the latest in Arlington’s tree wars, homeowners at 5920 N. 35th St. joined with passionate volunteers from the Arlington Tree Action Group to sound alarms over the threat to a towering water oak outside their home of 28 years, which might soon be a tear-down.

Patricia Teutsch and John Malerich, as they prepared to sell, invited the press March 4 to witness a Davy Tree expert evaluating their prized tree. The healthy 96-foot, 60-inch diameter specimen, he estimated, is 175-210 years old “with a strong root flare” and “active wood production.” The owners believe it is Arlington’s tallest outside the national cemetery.

It is “such a valuable resource to our home, that saved us thousands in utility bills, provides shelter for all kinds of wildlife, and brings a feeling of being established in the neighborhood,” Teutsch said. Her area “faces enormous developer pressure, and Arlington county provides no protection against developers clear-cutting lots. A $2,500 fine for violation is a mere cost of doing business for the developers.”

ATAG has linked this tree’s cause to its other recent complaints. The county has too few urban foresters, said member Kit Norland. It mowed down trees to build the new Lubber Run Community Center. And authorities “rubber-stamped” a developer’s felling of 200 trees in adding new homes to Chain Bridge Forest, she said. “We can’t expect help from the county.”
Several Arlington officials met with me to explain their talks with stakeholders and efforts they see as anything but ignoring threats to the tree canopy.

“What makes saving trees on single family projects challenging is that about 90 percent of such sites are developed by-right, with only about 10 percent as special exceptions or use permits,” said Luis Araya, chief of the Development Services Bureau at the Environmental Services Department. Trees can be preserved “more effectively with site-specific design solutions through a public process. But developers prefer to develop by-right because the review and approval process is more predictable and does not require public hearings. Staff has no discretion in the approval of a by-right development plan that meets minimum requirements.”

Jennifer Fioretti, deputy director at Parks and Recreation, said the county has pushed legislation that “provides greater incentives for tree canopy preservation and planting.” Delegate David Bulova’s bill (HB520, also backed by ATAG), is now on the governor’s desk. It would have the Department of Environmental Quality convene a stakeholder advisory group to study planting or preservation of trees as an urban land cover type and as a stormwater best management practice. Recommendations for incentivizing tree preservation could come in 2021, following a symposium on future legislation by the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Vincent Verweij, urban forest manager at Parks and Recreation, says the latest county budget would add an urban forester to the three he currently supervises, which would increase capacity for permit review (though the coronavirus is forcing new budgeting). It would add resources for maintenance and pest management, he added. “Just because we have to approve a plan doesn’t mean we like it.”

The for-profit homebuilders also backed the Bulova bill. Andrew Clark, vice president for government affairs at the Home Builders Association of Virginia, said his companies prefer to protect natural vegetation. “The tree canopy is a huge selling point. It creates a beautiful sustainable communication for the environment and clean waterways, a sense of place people want,” he said. Antiquated zoning “makes it difficult for developers to maintain natural vegetation and trees. We encourage local government to look at the local process and regulations.”

As a gesture toward customers socially distanced by the coronavirus, a barber in Westover has been moonlighting offering mobile appointments for $16. But when a satisfied customer posted an announcement on the Nextdoor neighborhood listserv, critics warned that home-service haircuts are an unhealthy idea.

Khalid Salmi told me he understands people’s fears, and that business is slow.