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Boosters of tree proposal descend on Vienna hearing

One of two options on the table emerges as clear favorite among those participating

Vienna Town Council members in coming weeks will consider two proposed code amendments aimed at preserving the town’s tree canopy, but residents who testified at an Oct. 23 public hearing decidedly favored one version.

The two code proposals consider changing the town’s regulatory approach on trees when it comes to development. Vienna currently operates according Virginia code section 15.2-961, which concerns tree replacement, said Vienna Parks and Recreation Director Leslie Herman.

Option 1, submitted by town resident Brian Land, would delete the town code’s existing tree-canopy standards and replace them with new requirements and incentives. This iteration also would eliminate the code’s definition of a Tree Board and supplant it with a newly defined Tree Commission, and institute a tree bond and 12-month tree-inspection process.

The Vienna Parks and Recreation Department would be solely in charge of implementing the new policies, including the development standards, under Land’s proposal.

Option 2, crafted by Town Attorney Steven Briglia, would update the town code’s tree standards and relocate them where town staff and developers could find them easily. Briglia recommends that the town retain its current approach of having the Department of Planning and Zoning, in consultation with the parks-and-recreation and public-works departments, enforce existing development standards with regard to trees.

The Council, town officials, residents and the Vienna Conservation and Sustainability Commission (CSC) for the past few years have been concerned about the town’s tree canopy, which according to research declined 13 percent between 2011 and 2021, Herman said.

Speakers at the hearing overwhelmingly favored Option 1. Among them was former CSC member Susan Stillman, who wanted the future code amendment to stress tree preservation and parallel standards in Fairfax County’s ordinance.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” Stillman said. “The second best time is now.”

Pam Keene agreed with Stillman’s points, saying that trees were not just decorative elements and ensure a “greener and healthier future for generations to come.”

Land testified that his proposed tree ordinance would have its own chapter in the town code, apply to all property development, be easier to locate and read, and demonstrate that Vienna values trees. Fairfax County’s ordinance is Virginia’s leading one, has a long track record and has not been challenged in court, he said.

Town resident Mary Ellen Larkins said she moved to Church Street, N.E., decades ago because of the neighborhood’s mature trees.

Trees help control temperature, reduce noise, purify air, produce oxygen, manage water, improve psychological health, enhance privacy, produce economic benefits, foster wildlife, lessen light pollution and are aesthetically pleasing, she said.

Trees are beautiful, serve as a “major carbon sink” and can lower street temperatures by 15 percent, said Vienna resident Susan Rexroad, another Option 1 fan.

CSC member William Comerford said Land’s proposal offers sound recommendations, is based on expertise and extensive research, and would “have a significant impact on ability regrow our tree canopy.”

Town resident Lea Giovanniello said those testifying were fighting more than just tree preservation.

“A healthy and mature ecosystem, once destroyed, may never recover – and certainly not in our lifetimes,” she said, adding, “A stand of trees left behind after development does not a forest make. So when you make your decision on how to move forward, think of the generations coming up behind us and the legacy that you are creating and leaving for them.”

Robert McCahill, president of the North East Vienna Citizens Association, said tree advocates had presented the Town Council with a 300-signature petition favoring enactment of a tree-conservation ordinance similar to the one Fairfax County has had in place since 1990.

Petition signers also favored establishment of a tree commission, which several surrounding jurisdictions have, as well as setting up a tree-planting budget and tracking and publishing the number of trees planted on town property annually, he said.

Vienna resident Bob Robinson said the continuing loss of trees threatens Vienna’s quality of life and constitutes “an assault on our collective well-being.”

Even holding the public hearing, which involved only listening to residents’ testimony and did not feature any Council decisions on the matter, required the surmounting of some hurdles.

The Council on Sept. 25 declined on a 3-3 tie vote to set the hearing, citing disagreements on the specificity and legality of what was being proposed. But on Oct. 2, with member Howard Springsteen back from vacation, the Council voted 4-3 to hold the Oct. 23 hearing.

Town Council members after the hearing left open through Nov. 3 the public-comment period open regarding the two proposed tree-canopy measures.

The Council is waiting for a recommendation from the Vienna Planning Commission, which should come after its Nov. 8 meeting, and will discuss the proposals again Nov. 13.