Tree Removal Raises Larger Questions

Tree Removal Raises Larger Questions

Proffer violation calls rezoning into question.

In its simplest terms, this story is about a broken promise and R-2 cluster zoning.

The Corbin Property, also known as The Goat Farm, is about 7 acres in size, located at the corner of Gallows and Idylwood roads. One house remains on the property, which had been zoned for one house per acre.

In 2003, the property was rezoned to allow two houses per acre in a cluster development. Clustering allows the same number of houses (in this case 14) to be built on smaller lots than would normally be permitted in order to preserve environmental features.

The environmental features to be preserved on The Goat Farm were two separate stands of trees. Some of those trees that were to have been saved have been cut down.

Mike Cavin lives a few houses down from the Corbin property. He was opposed to the rezoning, as had some of his neighbors, but he said that is no longer the issue. At this point he wants the developer, John Batal, to abide by the terms of the rezoning. “Just honor what was agreed to in the rezoning,” said Cavin.

THE COUNTY has issued citations for some of the trees that have been removed. Mike Knapp, head of the county’s Urban Forestry Department, declined to comment about the property specifically, because he thinks it may be headed for litigation.

In this type of situation, Knapp’s department works to determine which of the trees are most important to save and sets a dollar value for each tree that is to be saved. “There’s an industry accepted formula,” said Knapp.

The primary tool used is a book called “Guide for Establishing Values of Trees and Other Plants.” Foresters using this book calculate an estimated replacement value based on variables such as species, size and health of the tree.

According to the terms of the rezoning, each tree was assigned a dollar value. A $20,000 construction bond was placed on the trees. According to the terms of the construction bond, if after two years all of the trees were still alive, the money would be returned. In a sense, the bond acts as an incentive for a developer to preserve the trees.

The total value of the trees on the Corbin Property that were to be saved was about $35,000. However, the most that Batal could lose would be the $20,000 bond that was negotiated at the time of the rezoning. A sign on Gallows Road near the construction site says that the 14 houses have a starting price of $1.3 million.

Any trees that are destroyed would have their value deducted from the $20,000. That money would then be used to replace the tree. “The idea behind a bond is that it [replacement] would be done on site,” said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence).

The tree removal, however, calls into question the rationale behind the cluster zoning, Smyth said. If the cluster were granted in order to save the trees, and the trees were not saved, then should the cluster still be allowed?

That is what Smyth wants to know. She has asked the Fairfax County Zoning Enforcement Division to examine the rezoning agreement and what has happened on the property to determine whether Batal is in “substantial compliance” with the terms of the agreement.

What happens next is largely dependent on the findings. If Batal is found to be in compliance, then the project will likely be continued. If he is not, Smyth isn’t sure what could happen. The findings themselves may suggest a remedy, if there is to be one, but the situation may be unprecedented. “We’re charting new territory here,” she said.

Batal did not return The Connection’s calls for comment.