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Vienna seeks faster timeline for developers to provide tree coverage

Trees line Park Street near the Church Street intersection in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Future developers in Vienna may have half as much time to cultivate tree shade on their properties.

The Virginia State Senate recently passed legislation that would enable Vienna to adopt 10-year tree canopy requirements in place of the current 20-year time frame, getting the town a step closer to accomplishing one of its top priorities for the past couple of years.

Senate Bill 316 from Sen. Saddam Azlan Salim (D-37) passed the Senate 28-12 on Jan. 25 and now awaits a vote in the House of Delegates, which could send it to Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“The Town of Vienna has made this a priority in their legislative agenda for the past few years,” Salim’s office told FFXnow. “Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, [meaning] localities are required to get permission from the state legislature to do things.”

An identical bill filed in the House by Del. Holly Seibold (D-12) got rolled into a larger bill dealing with tree preservation. Read before the full House for the first time yesterday (Tuesday), House Bill 1100 would let all localities require developers to conserve trees, an authority currently only available to Northern Virginia.

The Vienna Town Council has been advocating for the ability to strengthen its tree canopy rules for developers since at least 2017, but the issue took on new urgency after a 2022 study found that the town had lost 13% of its tree canopy in the past decade.

The request to amend state law so the town could offer credits for the preservation of medium and large trees or require developers to cover at least 20% of a lot with tree canopy in 10 years, rather than 20, topped the council’s legislative agenda for the General Assembly’s 2024 session.

Right now, the 10-year canopy requirement is only an option for Williamsburg City and localities like Fairfax County that had adopted the provision before 1990, according to the Town of Vienna.

In the legislative agenda, the town council also called for the option to protect trees notable for their age, species, size “or other special significance”:

Given the vital role that trees play in the protecting our urban environments, and their contributions to the local look and feel of neighborhoods, decisions over tree policies should be determined at the local level, reflecting the wishes of the local residents. Trees canopy requirements or incentives should also be included in acceptable best management practices for storm water management.

While Salim’s bill only addresses the time frame for developers, the Vienna Town Council is poised to adopt other tree preservation standards that it already has the authority to implement.

The proposed ordinances would increase the minimum tree-canopy requirement from 20% to 25% lot coverage, require developers to preserve trees when possible to meet their requirements, create a tree planting fund and replace the town’s tree board with an appointed commission.

The ordinances were expected to get a vote on Feb. 26, but the town council agreed on Monday (Feb. 5) to defer advertising their intended adoption, partly to see what happens with the state legislation and partly to give members more time to comment on the final draft.

Councilmember Chuck Anderson, who proposed the deferral, admitted he needed more time to read the ordinances after a separate bill to allow a casino in Tysons “sucked all the oxygen out of the room.” Vienna publicly opposed the casino bill, which was officially postponed to 2025 by the Senate’s finance committee yesterday (Tuesday).

“Since this is so important to me personally, I really want to spend some time looking at the final draft and to make sure it’s basically as good as possible,” Anderson said of the tree ordinances. “…I’m not looking for major changes at all, but I would just like one more shot at looking at this carefully before we enact this.”

The council will now vote on publicizing its intent to adopt the ordinances at its Feb. 26 meeting. The council’s first meeting after the required 10-day waiting period will be on March 18.

Vienna Parks and Recreation Department Director Leslie Herman and Town Attorney Steven Briglia confirmed to FFXnow that the outcome of the state legislation won’t affect the council’s ability to adopt its tree canopy preservation ordinances.

“Should the bill pass, and Vienna is allowed to require a 10-year time frame for tree canopy requirements, the newly adopted Town code amendments to the ordinance will need to be amended by the Council to reflect that change,” Herman said.

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