Vienna will require developers to preserve trees, starting this summer

A yard sign advocates for saving Vienna’s trees (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Going forward, developers in the Town of Vienna will be required to save trees, not just replace them.

After years of study and discussion, the Vienna Town Council voted on April 29 to adopt a new tree conservation ordinance and create an advocacy committee in a bid to preserve and expand the town’s declining canopy.

Effective July 29, the town code amendments require anyone building on at least 2,500 square feet of land to cover 10 to 25% of the property with tree shade, depending on its zoning district. The developer must try to preserve existing trees before removing and replacing them to meet the 20-year canopy requirement.

If they fall short of the requirement, developers can contribute cash to a new Tree Preservation and Planting Fund that the town will use to fund planting projects in the community.

The new Tree Advocacy Committee replaces an existing tree board under the Conservation and Sustainability Commission (CSC). Made up of nine appointed residents, it will advise and assist the town with issues related to plant conservation and management, including by crafting an urban forest management plan and helping staff compile annual reports.

Anticipating concerns or questions from affected property owners, Councilmember Jessica Ramakis suggested before last week’s vote that the town should stress the benefits of the policy changes when communicating them to residents.

“There are positive environmental impacts. I think the tree canopy in the town is something that is valuable for that reason,” she said. “…Also, I think a lot of residents in the town find it to be part of the character of the town, so there are a lot of benefits, to be sure.”

Despite its designation as a “Tree City” by the Arbor Day Foundation, Vienna’s tree canopy has dwindled over the past decade, shrinking by 163 acres, or 13%, between 2011 and 2021, according to a report released in October 2022.

Per a town press release, about 38.7% of Vienna currently has tree cover — a rate lower than that of Falls Church City (46%) but higher than Arlington County (38%) and Alexandria City (32.5%).

Town staff unveiled the proposed tree conservation ordinance last May, noting that adding preservation rules would align Vienna with Fairfax County. The town has had 20-year canopy standards since 2014, but it didn’t dictate how developers should meet the required minimums.

Though it was a priority for the town council, the road to adoption was prolonged by debate over the structure of the amendments, including whether they should be enforced by the planning or parks and recreation department. The town also sought Virginia’s permission to set a 10-year canopy requirement, but state Sen. Saddam Salim’s bill died in the General Assembly.

Calling the vote “a long time coming,” Mayor Linda Colbert and Councilmember Chuck Anderson gave kudos to former council members Steve Potter, Nisha Patel and Ed Somers for their efforts in advancing the tree conservation measures.

“I was hoping he could be here tonight, because Steve put his heart and soul into this. It was extremely important to him,” Anderson said. “…There’s a lot of people who worked on this, but this was Steve’s passion, and I think he’s probably drinking some sort of red [wine] in our favor tonight to see this pass.”