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Is Development Threatening Arlington’s Trees?

Arlington’s two urban foresters are spread too thin to protect the county’s trees according to an environmentalist.

As construction and development transform Arlington, trees are falling and environmental watchdogs are calling on the county to tighten regulations by putting one more urban forester on patrol. Tasked with preserving trees and monitoring agreements with builders, the urban forester is on the front lines of environmental conservation in Arlington. But according to Dean Amel, chairman of Arlington's Environment and Energy Conservation Committee (E2C2), the county is in danger of giving developers free reign over many of its trees because a lack of manpower means the county can't properly enforce its own tree ordinances.

"Anytime there's any sort of road project or development, they have to go out and make sure of the trees roots and evaluate it," said Amel, who told the County Board during a March 29 budget hearing that urban foresters are spread too thin. "They have a very hard time policing the agreements developers commit to when it comes to trees," Amel said. "And they aren't going to have the time to go back and make sure that those agreements are being respected."

Amel asked the board to grant more funding for the forester position. Arlington currently has two full-time foresters to handle all of the program's workload, which is steadily increasing.

SINCE THE BEGINNING of 2005, urban forester Robert Corletta said, urban foresters have taken on preserving trees at 90 sites throughout the county. With development continuing unabated, he expects that number will reach at least 300 by the end of the year. Part of the increase, he said, comes from the added requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance, a measure aimed at reducing erosion and storm water runoff. The added permits required for a building to be compliant, he said, create a lot of extra work.

"The number of sites for us to inspect is increasing dramatically," Corletta said.

Arlington has about 18,500 trees along public right-of-ways alone, according to county statistics. There is no fixed total on the number of trees within the county lines, but an estimated 41 percent of Arlington is beneath a tree canopy. Yet, despite these numbers, urban foresters see trouble on the horizon.

"Based upon the daily demands of advising, educating and monitoring the county guidelines for development within public and private space, the current staff of professional foresters in Arlington County are in high demand and are overworked," said Lyndell Core, chairman of the county's urban forestry committee.

Urban foresters, he added, are more than just tree cops. They are engaged in environmental education programs in schools and in negotiating with developers to save trees from the chainsaw.

"They have to convince the building and development community of the benefits of trees in an area where square footage of floor space is an increasing valuable commodity," Core said.

Funding, Core said, has remained constant for the number of urban foresters in Arlington, and the program has broad county support, but in many instances a lack of manpower has led to challenges. Once foresters come to terms with a developer on the preservation of trees at a construction site, for example, guarding that agreement becomes problematic.

"Developers and builders look the other way when tree-protective fences mysteriously come down on a construction site," Core said. "Trees are regarded as disposable and a hindrance to developing a broader footprint for buildings. Green space and trees become an afterthought when the design and building facade are in place to convey the image of the structure."

Urban foresters, Corletta said, try to preserve as many trees as they can on public land. Corletta said the county even has the goal of filling all possible spots along its right-of-ways with saplings in the coming years. But foresters have little say when it comes to what happens on private property.

"Arlington is experiencing very intense in-fill development," he said. "We have to rely on private property owners. It's very challenging."

Saving trees, he said, most often takes a back seat to the bottom line.

"With development the way it is, people are inclined to do that," Corletta said. "It's driven by the market."