Alexandria proved to be ahead of the curve on the cut Christmas tree flap. The policy of "no proactive enforcement" apparently carried the day, even with the Commonwealth of Virginia.
A major change in the International Fire Code adopted by the Virginia General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Mark Warner, prohibits live cut trees from apartments and multi-family condominiums unless the building has a sprinkler system. It became effective October 1.
The new code bans natural cut trees in areas of assembly, educational facilities, institutional, mercantile, hotel and motels, apartments and condos, unless the buildings are protected by an approved automatic sprinkler system, according to a news release from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, dated November 24.
The release also stated, "Natural cut trees are banned without exception from institutional and adult care and assisted living facilities regardless of an approved sprinkler system. The code change does not apply to living trees with root balls wrapped in burlap."
The code, which is applicable statewide, does not impact "the use of natural cut trees in single-family detached homes, duplexes, or townhouses," according to the announcement. But, after a citizen outcry statewide, the State Fire Marshall issued a partial recision exempting rural areas from enforcement.
However, in that recision it was clarified that urban areas would still have to conform. This included Northern Virginia.
IN ALEXANDRIA, the decision had already been made to take no proactive enforcement. "We will be launching a public education campaign on how to safely have fresh cut trees in the home," said Arthur Dalhberg, director, Code Enforcement, Alexandria Fire Department.
"However, if there are complaints we will definitely investigate. If we find that there is no fire hazard because the tree and lighting are safe we will issue a notice giving the occupants 30 days to correct the violation," he explained.
"If we find the situation to be unsafe, such as deteriorated lighting or the tree not properly installed in a way to keep it fresh, we will take more aggressive steps. We prefer to adopt a public education approach rather than blanket enforcement," Dahlberg acknowledged.
That community outreach will be extended to Code Enforcement's meetings with civic associations and other groups throughout the city, according to Dahlberg. However, there are no present plans to make a mass distribution of the new Christmas tree regulations, he said.
"We believe we will be meeting the legal requirements of the code with this policy," Dahlberg said. "We have actually been taking this public education approach for a number of years and it has proved very successful. But, if there is a complaint, we are duty-bound to investigate it."
ALTHOUGH THE NEW code took effect more than two months ago there has been little or no information out to the public. A press release recently issued by Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department was one of the first alerts. It was followed by a press conference on November 26, the day before Thanksgiving.
The other side of the issue, in addition to fire protection safety, is the potential economic impact on Christmas tree sales. Most vendors were not informed of the new regulations. However, as sales increased this past weekend most lots were not experiencing any detrimental effect.
In Alexandria this might be attributed to the fact that many tree sales are to occupants of structures not covered by the new regulations. At St. Mary's School this past weekend, tree sales were as brisk as in previous years even with the early snowfall. By Sunday evening nearly three quarters of their supply was sold.
However, an area that could be affected by new regulations is the Route 1 corridor with its host of apartment buildings and condos, the vast majority of which do not have sprinkler systems.
"I've only had a few customers hunting for root balled trees because of the ban but I didn't order any this year. If I'd have known about this law sooner I would have ordered some," said Carl W. Edmonds, owner, Edmonds Nursery, 8351A Richmond Highway.
BUSINESS AT Hollywoods and Vines has been "brisk," according to Jim Luby, manager. "Lots of people like to buy root balled trees so they can plant them after the holiday's. It's really too early to tell how this will affect our cut trees," he said as a large tractor trailer was adding to their already well stocked inventory of trees at 8453 Richmond Highway.
For Justin Slater at Green Space Unlimited, 7835 and a half Richmond Highway, the season is still "too early to see any trends." But he showed little concern because, "Most of my customers live in single family homes," he said.