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Vienna leaders pump the brakes on tree ordinance

Some elected officials irked over delay in consideration until new year

Vienna’s potential new tree-canopy ordinance will have to wait until next year for action, to the consternation of some Town Council members.

Following a testy discussion that began a half-hour before midnight at the Council’s Nov. 13 meeting, members agreed to hold a work session on the topic Dec. 4 at 5 p.m., in advance of the regular meeting that night.

Some Council members were displeased they would be holding a work session on the matter Dec. 4, but not voting on it.

“This can is being kicked down the road,” said Council member Ray Brill Jr. “The people who are coming on the Council are aware of this issue. It’s not like we’re starting something that we’ve never heard about . . . I don’t want to push it into the next year.”

But Mayor Linda Colbert demurred.

“We are going to be voting on this in 2024,” she said. “There’s no voting on this year because we’ve run out of time for this.”

Colbert said the matter could not be advertised in time for a Dec. 4 vote. Next year’s Council, which will have new members Sandra Allen, Roy Baldwin and Jessica Ramakis, will be voting on the proposed tree-ordinance, she said.

The Council has spent the past several weeks discussing two possible options for preserving the town’s tree canopy:

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

This option would make the Vienna Parks and Recreation Department solely in charge of implementing the new policies, including the development standards.

• Option 2, written by Town Attorney Steven Briglia, would update tree standards in the town code and relocate them so town staff and developers could find them easily. Briglia’s option suggests that the town retain its current practice of having the Department of Planning and Zoning, in consultation with the parks-and-recreation and public-works departments, enforce existing development standards regarding trees.

Residents who spoke at a heavily attended Oct. 23 public hearing on the matter largely favored Option 1, which echoes Fairfax County’s tree ordinance. But town officials said the county’s ordinance has a grandfathered provision – not available to the town – that requires developers to reach the tree-canopy standard in 10 years instead of the standard 20.

The Council barely held the Oct. 23 discussion, having declined on a tie vote Sept. 25 to set the hearing. Council members could not agree on the specificity and legality of what was being proposed. But the Council voted 4-3 Oct. 2 to hold the hearing.

Council member Ed Somers, who like colleagues Nisha Patel and Steve Potter will be departing at year’s end, said at the Nov. 13 meeting that the next Council deserved to have a work session before voting on such an important issue. Colbert said she would endeavor to get the matter on a conference-session agenda “as early as possible” next year.

Potter was unhappy with that scenario.

“I don’t want to see us lose the ability to talk about things that we have agreed upon that we can do,” Potter said. “It seems to me that we’re kind of skipping over that, and that bothers me, that bothers me a lot. I think that we need to give it the due. We’ve put in a lot of time on this.”

The Council should stick to things it said it was going to do, he said.

“I just hate think that all of the work that we have done is now going to be pushed aside when we had said earlier that we were going to discuss this, we were going to bring up the key points that we were going to vote on and that we were going to move forward with those,” Potter said. “I think that it’s sad if it’s allowed to occur.”

Colbert said she hoped the Council would have handled the matter that evening, but “things always take longer than we think they’re going to.”

Anderson expressed disappointment at the outcome.

“This should never have been put at the end of this agenda,” he said. “It’s way too important and it’s too important to try to shove it in an hour on the fourth of December. But there are a number of Council members who put in a lot of time on this and they deserve at least an opportunity to present [their views on] this issue before the end. This issue has been delayed again and again and again. It’s just time that we take some action on this.”

Colbert again pressed her position.

“I don’t think anybody is trying to push this off,” she said. “I think we’ve done a tremendous amount of work, this Council has, and there’s only so many minutes and hours in the day . . . I really don’t think any of this is lost.”