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Vote on proposal to preserve Vienna’s tree canopy delayed to 2024

Advocates collect petition signatures supporting a Town of Vienna tree conservation ordinance at Vienna Oktoberfest 2023 (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The future of Vienna’s trees will rest on a new town council.

When it met on Monday (Nov. 13), the current Vienna Town Council was scheduled to finalize a proposal aimed at preserving and enhancing the town’s tree canopy, which has declined over the past decade.

But after a public hearing on noise and other agenda items pushed the meeting past midnight, the council voted instead to discuss the tree conservation ordinance in a 5 p.m. conference session before its meeting on Dec. 4 — leaving no time for a formal vote before the end of the year, to the disappointment of some council members.

“I think it’s a shame that it’s come down to this, because this is something that’s been known for a long time, and it just has not been acted upon to the level it should’ve been in my opinion,” said Councilmember Steve Potter, who is retiring due to health challenges. “…We’re not doing what we said we were going to do, and that’s the part that bothers me, because it’s just not right.”

Designated a top priority for 2023 by the council, the tree ordinance will increase requirements for canopy coverage — from 20 to 25% for large, single-family residential lots, for example — and introduce new standards and incentives to encourage developers to plant and preserve trees.

If adopted, the conservation ordinance would be just the second one in Virginia, following in the footsteps of Fairfax County, according to a memo from Vienna Director of Planning and Zoning David Levy. Like most localities, Vienna currently requires that developers replace trees, rather than preserve them.

However, the council is still deciding the best approach to implementing the new rules.

One option recommended by Town Attorney Steve Briglia would update the town code chapters on zoning, subdivisions and the Conservation and Sustainability Commission (CSC), whose duties include serving as the town’s tree board. Under this approach, the requirements would still be enforced by the planning and zoning department.

An alternative proposed by Vienna resident and Kirkland & Ellis LLP attorney Brian Land, whose firm was hired to conduct a pro bono analysis in 2020, would create a new chapter in the town code with all tree canopy and preservation requirements. The ordinance would be implemented by the Department of Parks and Recreation and establish a tree commission independent of the CSC.

Tree advocates who testified before the council at a public hearing on Oct. 23 “overwhelmingly” favored Land’s proposal, arguing that it would be broader in scope and make a clearer statement on the importance of trees to Vienna, Gazette Leader reported.

The town attorney recommended giving the planning director authority to allow deviations from canopy requirements in cases where they would cause “unnecessary or unreasonable hardship to the developer.” It also doesn’t require trees to be monitored or inspected after construction.

The Vienna Planning Commission issued a recommendation last Wednesday (Nov. 8) largely supporting Briglia’s proposal with a few tweaks, including a requirement that developers seeking to deviate from the canopy standards justify their request and an added provision for inspecting trees before and after they’re planted similar to what Land suggested.

“This language is consistent with current practice and codifying it will clarify the process for builders and property owners,” the commission said in a memo for the town council.

The council gave no indication on Monday regarding which direction it plans to take but instead spent half an hour debating whether to schedule a conference session on the issue next month, knowing that an actual vote won’t come until a new council takes office.

Mayor Linda Colbert and the three council members who sought reelection this year — Howard Springsteen, Chuck Anderson and Ray Brill — are all set to return. They will be joined by Planning Commissioner Jessica Ramakis, Board of Architectural Review Chair Roy Baldwin and budget analyst Sandra Allen, according to election results finalized Tuesday (Nov. 14).

In response to complaints about the delay on a tree conservation ordinance vote, Colbert noted that the council had accomplished other objectives, including the adoption of an updated zoning code and approval of sidewalk projects facing an October 2024 deadline.

“I don’t think anybody’s trying to push this off,” Colbert said. “I think we have done a tremendous amount of work, this council has, and there’s only so many minutes or hours in a day. Nothing’s lost…We’ve done a lot of work on the trees. It just takes a lot of time.”

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