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Arlington County Board aspirants try to reach root of tree issue

Most say more should be done to preserve, expand canopy

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, the four candidates for Arlington County Board have come out strongly – nay, unequivocally – in support of trees and maintaining and if possible increasing the overall tree canopy.

But they split on whether the county leadership has the same commitment, or whether it’s simply mouthing platitudes while the local tree canopy falls by the wayside.

“It is difficult to say what is worse, the danger to our quality of life [by the decline of tree canopy] or the county’s double-speak,” said independent Audrey Clement, in remarks during a Sept. 13 candidate forum sponsored by the Arlington Committee of 100.

Clement was channeling the views of many tree advocates and the Arlington Tree Action Group, which for years has criticized county officials for not doing enough to promote increases in the tree canopy and for engaging in rhetorical sophistry to keep critics at bay.

The county government is doing the ecology and community no favors by increasing urbanization, Republican Juan Carlos Fierro added when he was handed the microphone. That includes in county parks, where seas of concrete increase impervious surfaces and limit the opportunity for major tree-planting efforts, he suggested.

Criticism of the all-Democratic County Board from non-Democrats seeking office is probably to be expected. But even one of the two Democrats on the ballot seemed to throw shade, so to speak, at government efforts.

“Tree cover is absolutely critical,” said Susan Cunningham, who told Committee of 100 delegates that there needs to be “way more aggressive efforts.”

Cunningham, whose specific position on the county government’s has oscillated through campaign season, said at the debate that too many new houses would limit the ability to increase the tree stock. She suggested county leaders look into reuse of existing buildings for additional housing before going forward with fully eliminating limits on single-family zoning.

Democrat Maureen Coffey acknowledged the decline in trees on private property, but praised county officials for what she said was an increase on public lands. But even Coffey suggested the county government should be doing more to help support those trees, particularly mature ones, that may be imperiled.

“It can be expensive and daunting” for county residents to invest in tree preservation, she said. The government’s focus should be on “not just planting, not just preserving, but keeping them healthy,”  Coffey said.

One estimate suggests Arlington is home to roughly 750,000 trees, or about three for every resident. But as with many statistics, that figure is open to dispute.

As for the overall tree canopy, the county government pegs it at just over 40 percent of Arlington’s 26 square miles, but a more recent evaluation by a firm hired by tree advocates puts it more like 33 percent.

When faced with criticism on the issue, County Board members often have fallen back on the line that Virginia localities are hamstrung by restrictions imposed by the state government. Tree advocates respond that Arlington leaders fail to take advantage of the abilities localities do have, and often wonder why Democrats didn’t give local governments more authority during the brief window when the party controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature.

Clement, Fierro, Cunningham and Coffey are vying to succeed Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol, neither of whom sought re-election to a third four-year term. Cristol, in fact, left early – since mid-July her slot has been filled by Tannia Talento, a staffer of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who was selected by the four County Board members to fill out the term.

For those who like a good rhetorical fistfight, the departure of Dorsey at the end of the year will remove from the scene the County Board member who most often would push back on tree advocates, often to the point of pugnaciousness.