2024-07-17 7:33 PM

The City’s Urban Forest Needs You!

By Stephanie Lamore

This April the City of Falls Church celebrates 45 years as a Tree City USA. To achieve that recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation, the city committed to maintain a tree board or department, develop a community tree ordinance, spend at least $2 per capita on urban forestry, and celebrate Arbor Day each year. The Tree City USA distinction provides a framework for the city to maximize the ecological and aesthetic benefits of the urban for est to our community. The city’s urban forestry initiative relies on expert staff and community volunteers to, among other goals, preserve and expand the city’s tree canopy coverage — to meet the regional recommendation of 50 percent tree canopy coverage — and to ensure that trees and green spaces are equitably distributed and accessible throughout the city.

The importance of trees in urban areas is tremendous. The well documented benefits that urban forests and green spaces provide include reduction of erosion and flooding from stormwater runoff; cleaner air (a mature tree absorbs more than 48 pounds of CO2 each year); and reduction of higher temperatures emanating from the concrete and asphalt of urban heat islands. Healthy urban forests and green spaces provide diverse habitats for wildlife and native plants. For people, spending time around trees and green spaces has been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress and improve mental health. 

A host of compounding stresses complicate the preservation and management of urban trees. Among these are land use development that disrupts and removes native soils, increasing temperatures, torrential flooding followed by extended periods of drought, pests and diseases, and harmful lawn and gardening practices. Given the climate and biodiversity crises that we face, current regulatory tools and policies to address these issues may seem inadequate.

One of the most intractable problems that many localities, not just Falls Church, face is how to encourage preservation and growth of community-wide tree canopy coverage as a public common when the majority of trees are on privately owned residential lots. Mature trees are routinely cut down on private property when a new house is being built. The City Arborist has limited jurisdiction on such sites, but does recommend that trees be preserved as often as possible. The huge demand for larger homes makes tree preservation difficult. The expanded footprint of a larger house means that construction and stormwater grading requirements may affect critical root zones of trees. Sometimes, too, required removal of invasive plants or trees, may further denude a lot. The city’s main authority to address this situation is to require that a new residential development preserve or plant new trees to achieve 20 percent tree canopy coverage over the site within ten years. This minimum comes from Virginia Code 15.2-961 on the replacement of trees during the development process. Advocating for a higher tree canopy coverage minimum must be done at the state level, ideally working together with other local jurisdictions who also desire more flexibility in setting that requirement.

On new large commercial developments, the city has not adopted minimum requirements for tree canopy coverage or landscaped open space (aka greenspace), but instead negotiates these conditions with developers. The results have been mixed with some developments exceeding the state’s recommendation of 10 percent tree canopy coverage for commercial sites and other developments falling short. Presently, the city counts trees planted along the streetscape in the public right of way, outside of the development site lines, toward total coverage. The idea is to enroll the commercial manager’s assistance in caring for the street trees. The city’s Urban Forestry Commission is currently working on developing minimum tree canopy and green space requirements to be integrated into the City’s existing building and development codes.

If you love of trees, urban forests, and green space and want to join in the conversation on how to move our community forward in their protection and expansion, here are ways to participate: 

Arbor Day Celebration in Madison Park (corner of Columbia and Lawton Streets) on Saturday, April 22, 1:00 pm. Come meet likeminded City residents, talk with UFC Commissioners, the City Arborist and City Council members. 

Urban Forestry Commission meetings (third Wednesdays each month at City Hall, 7:30 pm). Attend and/or submit public comment to arborist@fallschurchva.gov. The UFC advises the City’s Arborist, Council, and Manager on regulations, policies, practices, and plans for the care and improvement of the city’s urban forest. The Commission is the place to join the larger policy discussions as well as bring your ideas on prospective sites for street tree planting and on how to engage residents in conservation landscape practices.

City Council meetings (second and fourth Mondays each month at City Hall, 7:30 pm). Express your concerns and ideas during the public comment period. Send comments to cityclerk@fallschurchva.gov.

Preserving trees and green space in the City of Falls Church isn’t an easy task. Competing priorities, budget constraints, and staff shortages present myriad challenges. By working together, however, I believe that we can and must find solutions to many of these challenges.

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