Vienna may soon require developers to plant and preserve more trees

A tree on Branch Road in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The Town of Vienna is ready to turn over a new leaf in its commitment to tree plantings and preservation.

In the hopes of reversing a significant decline in canopy coverage over the past decade, staff proposed a tree conservation ordinance to the Vienna Town Council last week that would require developers to preserve existing trees when possible.

An ordinance would put the town in line with Fairfax County, which has had conservation rules since the General Assembly extended that authority to Northern Virginia localities in 1990. Right now, Vienna only requires that developers replace eliminated trees to meet canopy standards.

“This is the kind of thing that’s so big, so impactful that I would like to hear from the community on and…is absolutely worthy of a public hearing. It’s a big idea that could have big results,” Councilmember Ed Somers said after the May 8 presentation.

Current canopy requirements vary across zoning districts, but for the single-family residential lots that dominate most of Vienna, builders must provide enough trees to cover at least 20% of the lot after 20 years.

A conservation ordinance would raise that 20-year standard to 25%, require developers to “make an effort” to preserve any trees likely to survive, and let developers unable to meet their on-site canopy requirement contribute to a fund for trees plantings elsewhere in the town.

“If you can’t meet your tree requirements through tree preservation, you supplement that through tree planting, as opposed to what Vienna has right now, where a builder can cut down all the trees if they want and then just replace them with new trees later,” Brian Land, a Vienna resident and Kirkland & Ellis LLP attorney, explained.

The town hired Kirkland & Ellis and the Ramboll US Corporation, a consulting company, in September 2020 for a pro bono project to analyze its tree program and those of other jurisdictions in Virginia.

In addition to a conservation ordinance, the consultants recommend that Vienna create a tree commission to supplement its Conservation and Sustainability Commission and track and publish plantings data on an annual basis.

Town staff have already started to make progress on the tracking recommendation, thanks to a town-wide tree inventory now underway.

Building off an urban tree canopy assessment released in October, the now-complete first phase of the inventory identified 8,640 sites in town that either have a tree or are suitable for future plantings. Of the 7,224 existing trees, 306 were dead, and 689 others were in poor condition, town staff told the council.

Conducted by consultant PlanIT Geo, the project’s second phase will consist of parks that weren’t already surveyed. A final report is expected to be presented to the town council on June 12.

The inventory data, including the health and species of each tree, is being assembled into a dashboard that staff will be able to update in real time and that will be accessible to the public through the town’s website.

While the inventory will provide valuable information, more staff and money are needed to actually plant and maintain trees, Vienna Park Maintenance Superintendent Jeremy Edwards said.

According to Edwards, the town’s annual tree maintenance budget has jumped from $30,000 just two years ago to $80,000 this year, and the council approved $250,000 in federal Covid relief funds for a street tree replacement project on May 1.

However, Vienna has no staff dedicated to tree maintenance, and with hundreds of trees in need of removal or pruning, those funds start to look pretty paltry.

“If trees are important, which I think they are, we do need to build a staff of competent workers that can not just cut trees, but know how to prune them, how to maintain them so we can manage them much better going forward,” Edwards said. “A lot of people can just cut. That’s what we’ve been doing so far, but knowing the proper cuts, that’s the skilled staff we need right now.”

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