By Kate Reich
Falls Church City residents caught on to the value of neighborhood trees long before the ecological and health benefits of urban forests were known. In 1892, Falls Church was the first community in Virginia to celebrate Arbor Day, establishing a pattern of promoting trees as necessary elements of a thriving community. In 1978, the City of Falls Church was designated Virginia’s first Tree City USA. Today, our average canopy cover city-wide is estimated at 46 percent, which exceeds that of most communities in Northern Virginia.
Given that green, leafy neighborhoods are what’s expected in Falls Church, it’s not surprising that some people have become alarmed over the recent pace of tree removal on residential home redevelopments. Most people now know that trees provide us with oxygen, sequester carbon, remove air pollutants, absorb and filter stormwater, help cool our urban streets, increase building energy efficiency, and provide essential habitat for insects and wildlife. And perhaps just as importantly, large trees have effects beyond the specific property they stand on. When they are removed, they leave gaping holes in the tree canopy — and in the neighborhood — that take many years to fill.
Data from the last four years’ residential development permits show that redevelopment has been affecting about 1 percent of the City’s residential land each year. The newer houses are almost invariably built to the largest allowable size, taking up more space than the houses they replaced. Because larger home footprints mean reduced landscape space after redevelopment, more mature trees are being removed than protected. And where trees are saved, they are seldom on the front of a lot, so lots may look like they’ve been cleared even when trees in the back have been saved.
The City can, and does, limit tree removal for residential development. Residential development projects are prohibited from disturbing any land outside the necessary construction area. And all the trees on each site, as well as neighboring trees that could be affected by the development, must be assessed by a Certified Arborist and protected from construction damage wherever possible. Preserving and/or planting trees to achieve at least 20 percent canopy cover within 10 years is also required. The City has significant enforcement authority, but we find that developers in most cases are our allies in tree protection. Preserving existing trees adds value to homes in Falls Church, where homebuyers expect forested neighborhoods and homes. Preserving existing trees is also considerably more efficient than cutting them down and planting new ones to meet canopy cover requirements.
So tree loss on residential redevelopments may not be a full-blown environmental apocalypse. But I’ll bet you still don’t like it. Neither does the Urban Forestry Commission, and neither do I. A dense tree canopy is what we all expect in Falls Church, and none of its loss should be taken lightly. The Falls Church City Council invited the Urban Forestry Commission to their work session on Nov. 18 to discuss ways that the City might reduce the loss of mature trees. Possible strategies suggested by the two groups include:
• Provide incentives or variances for preserving more trees during development.
• Increase the restrictions on tree removal, or create disincentives for removing them.
• Develop preferred residential stormwater management practices that support trees.
• Encourage designation of more Specimen Trees, or develop a new category of protected trees.
• Provide incentives for ongoing protection of mature trees.
It’s interesting to note that lot size is not always a good predictor of tree preservation during residential redevelopment. Some of the smallest lots preserved 25 percent or more of the pre-existing canopy cover during redevelopment, and some of the largest preserved none. In Falls Church City, only two things predict the extent of tree preservation: the presence of healthy mature trees to begin with, and those trees’ locations on the lot.
Yes, right here in our beloved Tree City, many homes lack a good, healthy tree cover before redevelopment. That’s why some of the potential strategies listed above can also apply to properties that are not being redeveloped. We can’t predict which planting locations will be safe from future developments, but we can work toward ensuring that there are plenty of healthy native trees worthy of protection when that future redevelopment is contemplated.
The City will research the feasibility of the City Council’s and Urban Forestry Commission’s suggestions, and do its part to improve protection for mature trees. But regulations don’t build community. Most of Falls Church’s forest is located on residential land. For our community to remain leafy and green, we depend on the help of City residents to voluntarily maintain healthy trees on their own properties. Because trees are a Falls Church thing. Are you in?
Kate Reich is the arborist of the City of Falls Church.