Tree Preservation and New Construction: Arlington Rules

Canopied street in Bluemont before new 2 houses replaced with 3

Shady street in Bluemont area with 2 old houses in 2006

On May 9, 2012 the Lyon Park Civic Association hosted a panel discussion on tree removal issues related to new construction, in response to recent community discussion about the removal of trees at 310 N Fillmore Street. The informative and balanced program, with an audience of 50 persons, was moderated by Bill Anhut and featured three panelists; an arborist, Dick Miller (Arlington County Urban Forester), a builder, Robby Malm (President of BeaconCrest Homes, and a policymaker, Chris Zimmerman (Arlington County Board).

Mr. Anhut started the discussion by describing two neighboring construction sites 314 N. Fillmore where the builder saved the on-site trees and 310 N. Fillmore where its builder removed all four of the lot’s trees. (NOTE: Photos are of previous construction in nearby Bluemont Association and not Fillmore Street)  Mr. Malm, an experienced builder, explained that a builder often does not have flexibility of house placement due to required set backs from street and property lines.

County Arborist Richard Miller explained that trees establish a “critical root zone”, generally circular, with a diameter ranging 25-50 feet. Trees adapt to their environment and can grow healthy roots even when driveways and house foundation walls are nearby. However, the roots are usually damaged when the former foundation walls are demolished to make way for the new construction. Trees can survive if less than 33% of their existing critical root zone is disturbed, but if the new home’s excavation cuts into more than 33% of the existing roots, the tree likely will not survive and should be removed positioning of a new house on a lot due to set-back and other zoning regulations. All three panelists indicated that more trees might be preserved if zoning administrators/inspectors interpreted regulations to ease setback regulations pertaining to porches and stairs. It is his company’s practice to communicate the potential impact of construction on a site’s trees with immediate neighbors, a “best practice” all developers should be encouraged to employ. He also explained that it is often in the builder’s best interest to save trees on a site because tree removal is expensive.

Sunny street with 3 houses, 3 small trees. No more shade

Photo from same location after development. Photos by N. Palmatier

Mr. Miller and Mr. Malm then discussed the process for obtaining new home construction approvals to comply with soil erosion and tree protection provisions of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance. The Ordinance requires trees be retained or newly planted to provide a minimum of 20% tree canopy coverage for the lot within 20 years. A Landscape Plan prepared by an engineer and arborist is required for any building affecting over 2,500 square feet of land. The Landscape Plan identifies whether trees will be retained and how the completed project will satisfy the 20% coverage requirement. Dick advised that Arlington County has recently hired a third urban forester whose principal function pertains to the administration of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance requirements.

Arlington county Board Member Chris Zimmerman discussed the many benefits trees provide the community and how their removal impacts taxpayers by increasing the expense of cooling individual homes and public buildings and requires greater expense to process drinking water and control the run-off of waste into the Chesapeake Bay. Trees save taxpayers money and increase property value. The Champion Tree and Notable Tree programs were started to identify and protect remarkable trees in the County, and tree planting programs intended to encourage the planting of trees on public and private property are encouraged, such as the annual tree whip distribution and the Tree Canopy Fund.

Mr. Anhut asked the panel whether the $2,500 civil fine for removing a Notable Tree was an adequate deterrent and might be considered as only a cost of doing business given that most newly constructed homes command a selling price in excess of a million dollars. Mr. Zimmerman explained that the State of Virginia would not permit a larger penalty. If building a home for a customer, Mr. Malm said he would attempt to persuade a prospective homeowner to retain and protect a Notable Tree.

There was a lively question and answer discussion following the formal program. One questioner lamented that a developer clear-cut a wooded lot for subdivision and building of multiple homes. In Virginia, any property owner can remove their trees without recourse. Another person commented that the Board of Zoning Appeals initially denied a project’s variance request in order to save a mature tree. Mr. Zimmerman noted that BZA members are appointed by the Circuit Court and are not accountable to the Arlington County Board. Another member of the audience commented that he thought the 20% tree canopy requirement of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance was inadequate, given Arlington County’s current 40% tree canopy coverage. Mr. Zimmerman responded that the Ordinance is primarily aimed at controlling soil erosion and that the passage of a similar measure would be doubtful today given the current political reality in Richmond.

The session educated citizens on the reality of what tree protection county and state rules currently provide. Do you have a suggestion for how an individual can help save a tree during construction? If so, please comment.

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One Response to Tree Preservation and New Construction: Arlington Rules

  1. How many trees in total were taken down? Is the location of Photo A also the same location as Photo B? If so then darn, alotta trees got fell

    -Oscar Valencia

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