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Votes

Bills Would Protect Trees, Dark Skies

Two proposed bills that hold high interest to citizens in McLean and Great Falls were scheduled to go before the Local Government committee in the General Assembly on Jan. 22.

A Senate bill to increase the percentage of trees preserved during residential construction appears doomed, but the other, a House bill to give local governments more control over outdoor light “trespass,” had a fighting chance to survive, according to State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd).

“There is a reluctance down here to give local governments more authority. In general, the legislature doesn’t trust them,” said Howell.

She sponsored Senate Bill 484, which would have allowed local governments to strengthen the ordinances that preserve trees during residential construction.

In an area that allows residential density of 10 sites or less per acre, the bill would increase the percentage of tree conservation from 20 to 30 percent.

Great Falls Citizens Association President Eleanor Anderson said the measure “has minimal impact. It is kind of like one infant step forward,” she said Sunday after polling members of the GFCA executive committee to ask their opinion. “The board was overwhelmingly supportive,” she said.

But Mark Trostle, a builder and landscape architect who represents the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (NVBIA) on Fairfax County’s Tree Preservation Task Force, said the bill would have “substantial impact” on property values.

“Under particular housing densities -- such as townhouses -- it just might not be practical to save the tree cover percentages they are talking about,” Trostle said.

With the bill scheduled to go before the committee after press time at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Howell was pessimistic it could survive.

Rather than see the bill killed, she was preparing to withdraw it from consideration in the current legislative session, she said.

“I put in the bill. It is absolutely obvious that if it come to a vote, it will be defeated in the [local government] committee,” she said. “In my opinion the worst thing that could happen is to have this bill killed.”

“What is unfathomable is that the county thought the builders did not object to this, because they are vehemently opposed to it,” she said. “The builders believe that the way it is written, it will stop some housing developments."

<mh>Hope for Lighting Bill

<bt>Howell said she was more hopeful that a lighting bill sponsored by Del. Vincent Callahan (R-34th) would win the support of the committee.

“We are working to get something on the books this year,” she said.

The bill would allow Fairfax County to pass ordinances dealing with the lighting of the night sky, and have more ability to control lighting in commercial areas, said Howell.

But getting the bill through the legislative committee would have a price, she said.

“I am having to exempt VDOT to have any chance of getting it out,” she said. “We will go after VDOT in another form, administratively.”

In addition, Howell said she would have to add a five-year “sunset” provision “to make sure that it is not abused.”

And, agricultural zones would be exempted, she said.

“The farmers want to be able to light up their barns and chicken coops. I don’t have any farms in my district. I am more interested in the night sky in suburban areas.”

<mh>Builders Association

<bt>Despite a last-minute surge of support from citizens in Great Falls, Howell said, “miscommunication” between Fairfax County government and local builder associations threatened the survival of the tree conservation bill.

Although Dranesville District Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn reportedly had written a memo last November which described the measure before it was taken up at a public hearing on Fairfax County’s legislative package, building industry representatives said they didn’t get word that the measure was going forward.

At press time Tuesday, Mendelsohn could not be reached for comment.

“Purportedly, someone in the industry was notified,” said Trostle of the NVBIA. “We never tracked down how that notification occurred.

“I am a member of the Tree Preservation Task Force of the Board of Supervisors, and it never came to my attention. I think it was kind of below the radar screen,” Trostle said.

“When I read the thing, I was quite surprised,” said Trostle. “I don’t think the effects were thought through.

“I think [the bill] has substantial impact on property values. It is hard for people to understand that, because [to citizens] anything that sounds like it is saving trees sounds like a good thing.

“They are revising an existing bill that gave enabling legislation for this tree canopy coverage. It hasn’t been in existence long enough to tinker with it,” he said.

“The industry has supported other efforts to increase tree preservation, short of resorting to new legislation.”

<mh>Next Year

<bt>“Nobody called me. I am really annoyed,” said Howell, who represents McLean and Great Falls in the Virginia Senate.

“What is going on is there has been some serious miscommunication between [Fairfax] County and the builders. The county was under the impression, and told me, that the builders did not oppose the bill.

“That is not true. They do oppose the bill. We had the beginning of a communications breakdown between the county and the builders,” Howell said.

“I believe at this point the county wants me to carry it over. The builders have promised the county and me they will work on it over the next year so we can have something that will pass [next year].