Compromise Turns Over New Leaf

Compromise Turns Over New Leaf

Tree ordinance passes, but amendments reduce county powers.

Protecting trees seems like a noble goal, but a proposed measure to do just that brought out “a parade of horribles” this Saturday.

The Tree Preservation Ordinance had opponents and supporters chomping at the bit to get in their two cents at the Nov. 16 County Board meeting, pushing the meeting well past its normal 5 p.m. cutoff.

Local gadfly John Antonelli threatened board members with visits to their homes if they passed the ordinance. Conservative activist Wayne Kubicki told the board to “kiss my bark” if they thought they could tell him what to do with trees on his own property.

On the other side of the issue, Pamela Fisher of the Urban Forestry Commission made it clear to the board how credible she found the speeches. “There’s been a parade of horribles brought out,” she said.

It seemed unlikely that anyone would be satisfied. But after a lengthy debate, the board passed a modified version of the ordinance based on a compromise proposed by board member Paul Ferguson.

The Tree Preservation Ordinance was intended to regulate work done on county-owned trees, and to establish a way for the county to prohibit removal or damage to trees on both public and private land. The original language of the ordinance contained a provision that would have enabled the board to restrict a homeowner’s right to cut down a tree if it were designated for protection as a “Heritage, Memorial, Specimen or Street Tree.”

It ultimately passed with amendments that required owner consent before a tree on single-family residential property can be designated for protection. Public and commercial lands, as well as any residential properties zoned for multiple residences, will be subject to possible restrictions under the new ordinance.

“[The compromise] allowed both sides to claim victory,” said Tim Wise, who argued against the ordinance as it was originally proposed.

SUPPORTERS HOPE FOR improvements in the way the county and private companies handle tree coverage, now that the ordinance has passed. “It’s a positive way for Arlington citizens to engage in canopy maintenance,” said Rebecca Mead, the Co-chairman of Arlington Releaf, a group that helped support the ordinance.

The “Canopy” is the foliage of mature trees. The county board and various environmental groups have identified canopy loss as a problem in Arlington, and satellite imagery shows that the county’s tree canopy decreased more than 10 percent between 1973 and 1997.

The idea of protecting public trees drew little opposition at Saturday’s meeting, and many of the opponents of the ordinance even said they would support a measure that addressed only the foliage on county-controlled lands. But a proposed power to protect private trees without the owners’ consent proved controversial.

That was the smallest part of the ordinance, according to Chris Zimmerman, the chair of the board. But he wasn’t surprised that it attracted the most attention. “As is often the case, 90 percent of the discussion is on 10 percent of the matter,” he said during the meeting.

Supporters of the measure claimed victory because they, like Zimmerman, said the revised portion was the least important. “That was really just a minor part of the ordinance,” said Dean Amel, a member of the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, who spoke in favor of the proposal.

“I thought that would be a nonissue in the actual implementation anyway,” said William Young, another supporter of the ordinance.

Ferguson said as much when he proposed to eliminate that provision from the ordinance. The board, he said, would have been responsible enough not to abuse the power, but by eliminating the power, “We’ve taken away that potential fear.”

Fisher fought to keep the board from amending the proposal. Giving the board the power to protect a tree despite a homeowner’s objection would simply give the board options in extreme cases, she said.

Similar ordinances have been enacted in Alexandria, Manassas and Williamsburg, and an ordinance in Falls Church has given authorities there even more extensive rights over tree protection.

DEBATE OVER AUTHORITY issues within the county government extended the controversy of the proposal.

Originally, the board would have been responsible for deciding which trees would be protected as “heritage, memorial, specimen or street trees,” but the county manager would have been able to override those protections if there were “an overriding need for public improvements.”

Zimmerman, as well as representatives of the Urban Forestry Commission and several citizen speakers, saw problems with a proposal that would allow the manager in effect to overturn board decisions without consultation. After debate, the ordinance was revised to require the board to act in order to allow a protected tree to be removed.

WITH OR WITHOUT the revisions, the ordinance failed to address the major issue, according to some. “They’re ignoring the real problem, and that’s development,” said Jim Ragland, chair of the Civic Federation’s environmental affairs committee.

Satellite images that the board used to demonstrate the loss of tree canopy from 1973 to 1997 show that the most dramatic loss occurred along development corridors, such as I-66, Wilson Boulevard and I-395. Since development projects must be approved or rejected by the board, the board is ultimately responsible for the problem, he said.

Opponents of the measure haven’t been able to make board members see that reasoning, Wise said. “If they get it, they don’t admit it,” he said.

Even board members expressed reservations about the ordinance. Charles Monroe said supporting or rejecting the measure was “a tough call.”

Jay Fisette said the definitions of “heritage, memorial and specimen trees” were too vague. Furthermore, he said, instead of attempting to force homeowners to comply by law with efforts to protect notable trees, it may have been more productive to establish a “voluntary, incentive-based” program.

Supporting an incentive-based program was, according to Ragland, “going in the right direction.” But he wasn’t completely satisfied. “I don’t think they quite understand the bigger picture,” he said.

Even so, the debate was productive. “That’s a reasonable compromise,” he said. “And I’m grateful to Paul [Ferguson].”