Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

My neighbor Richard Sullivan is proud of his front yard’s 60-foot oak and maple trees he planted from county-supplied seedlings 40 years ago.


That program distributing free plantings to residents continues, but not without critics, who see it as weak tea. Canopy protectors in the Arlington Tree Action Group fear that Arlington is losing the broader battle to inject environmental consciousness in the quotidian decisions that balance exploding development with the human need for greenery.


Several activists were miffed when the county board Nov. 13 rejected a proposal from nonprofits ATAG and EcoAction that Arlington declare climate change an emergency and create a chief climate change and sustainability officer. Board members said such a “rhetorical device” would not enhance powers and would tie managers’ hands.


ATAG’s hopes for pending state legislation addressing the tree canopy dimmed when Richmond advisors removed components that could allow Arlington to raise the $2,500 fine for removing classified trees.


And its proposal to budget for a new tree census was merely taken under advisement.


“All the climate change events around the world” prompt responses that “recognize the value of trees in saving energy and sequestering carbon,” said ATAG member Kit Norland. “But it falls on deaf ears. No one pays attention” over the long-term to the new plantings by builders and residents, “and some trees are planted but not maintained.”


Despite state law restricting local authority to force developers to preserve a larger percentage of trees on building lots, “the county has more power than they think they do, to change the culture,” added her colleague Susan Land. “If the board is cautious about requiring builders to do X and Y for fear that they won’t come to Arlington anymore, they’re way off the mark. Builders will jump through hoops to build here.”


I ran these issues by Arlington Urban Forest Manager Vincent Verweij, who noted that some involve political questions best answered by the county board and state officials. “Construction soils can be tough places for trees to survive, so we have started requiring soil remediation…, to improve the chance of survival of trees on these lots,” coupled with continued education.


When a building is ready to be occupied, “an inspection is required by a forester, to ensure the trees conserved and planted are in good health,” he said. “The management of trees becomes the responsibility of the new owners. Most developers in Arlington have to follow the soil remediation requirements, which helps tree establishment.”


Addressing Arlington’s larger, shall we say “overstory,” Verweij said his forestry staff helped promote shade-giving trees in the county’s 2019 community energy plan, and will do so in its coming Forestry and Natural Resources Plan. “Trees are part of the solution,” he said. “But even if all of Arlington was covered in trees, we could not offset the carbon used by our population. What we can do in our community is important, and we need to look at all tools, from renewable energy sources to natural solutions and carbon offsets to manage climate change.”


County brass and history curators gathered at Lubber Run Community Center Oct. 19 for the 18-month-pandemic-delayed marking of the 100th year anniversary of Arlington taking its name.


That end to the era of our being Alexandria’s “out-county” was recalled with exhibits to make history “easily accessible for the next 100 years,” said project chair and county board member Libby Garvey.


A blue plastic trunk containing a hundred 2020 time-capsule items—pandemic masks, a Black Lives Matter sign, a General Assembly proclamation — was ceremoniously locked for keeping at the library’s Center for Local History until 2071.


Library Director Diane Kresh spoke of resisting “book banning and disinformation.” County Manager Mark Schwartz noted more census respondents self-identifying as more than one race. School board member Barbara Kanninen vowed to “make sure students are informed but not harmed” by learning of past unpleasantness.


Then Economic Development director Telly Tucker led a keyboard rendition of “Happy Birthday.”