Trees vs. Construction in the Little City

July 20, 2010 by · 7 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

July 20, 2010

On a recent Sunday morning, a tree crew appeared on Forest Drive and removed two mature trees from a lot upon which a new house will soon be built. Given a context where protecting trees appears to be of utmost importance to the City, it is surprising and disconcerting to residents when developers clear-cut lots. While the tree removal on Forest came as a surprise to neighbors, it was perfectly legal, approved and permitted by the City’s arborist.

Here’s a thumbnail version of the City’s tree policy as it relates to construction:

For smaller projects — or those that disturb less than 2,500 square feet of land — the arborist may require that property owners have tree protection fencing installed around City trees and perhaps specimen trees.  Projects of all sizes situated in the resource protection area (RPA) receive additional scrutiny from the arborist. (Per the City code, RPAs consist of sensitive lands that have an intrinsic water quality value due to the ecological and biological processes they perform or are sensitive to impacts, which may result in significant degradation to the quality of state waters.  A list of properties in the RPA can be found here.)

Projects where 2,500 square feet or more of land is disturbed require an erosion and sediment plan, a grading plan, and a landscape conservation plan.  For these projects, in addition to tree protection fencing for existing trees on the owner’s property and for City trees in the right-of-way, measures may also be required to protect trees on adjacent properties.  If tree protection is violated during construction, a fine or a stop work order may be imposed. At the end of the construction project, the property owner may be required to cover the purchase and installation of new trees and shrubs to meet the tree canopy requirements set forth in the City’s Tree Protection and Preservation Guide.

Why does clear-cutting happen? In many cases, it’s easier for developers to remove trees than to try and protect them during the construction process. The pre-permit work of tree protection can be time consuming, not to mention money consuming, if it takes too long.  Then there is the possibility that the owner or contractor complies with the tree protection measures only to have a subcontractor violate the ordinance.  The Tree Protection and Preservation Guide suggests that property owners write their contracts so that a fine is imposed on contractors who violate the tree protection measures.  (Speaking of tree ordinance violations, according to Washington Post archives, a City resident was arrested in 1999 for removing two oak trees on his property during renovation. The City ordinance was changed as a result and the City agreed to pay $6,000 to the resident and expunge his arrest record.  Today, violators of the tree ordinance face fines rather than criminal charges.)

Clear-cutting also happens when trees are simply in the way. With a permit, trees on undeveloped property, trees on property that is undergoing redevelopment (sites with a building permit application on file), and City trees on the right-of-way may be removed.  Imagine a lot where trees are growing where the dining room is planned.  Or, a City tree is blocking the proposed driveway.  As with other trees, a property owner may request that a City tree be removed if it interferes with the intended use of the property. Permits are not required to remove a tree on residential private property if the property is not under development, unless the tree is a specimen or historic tree.

Here’s the code showing what the arborist considers when evaluating tree removal permit applications:

Sec. 44-110.  Permit review and issuance.

(a)   Factors to consider.  In addition to reviewing for conformance to standards and guidelines contained in the public facilities manual, the following factors shall also be taken into consideration:

(1)   The extent to which tree clearing is shown to avoid excessive clearing and still permit the applicant to achieve the proposed development or land use.
(2)   The extent to which the actual or intended use of the property is in accordance with the regulations of the zoning district in which the property lies requires clearing of trees.
(3)   The hardship to the applicant which will result from a modification or rejection of the required permit.
(4)   The desirability of preserving any tree by reason of its size, age or some other outstanding quality, such as uniqueness, rarity or status as a landmark or species specimen.
(5)   The extent to which the area would be subject to environmental degradation due to removal of the trees.
(6)   The heightened desirability of preserving tree cover in densely developed or densely populated areas.
(7)   Whether the tree is diseased, injured beyond restoration, in danger of falling, interferes with utility services or creates unsafe visual clearance.

(b)   Replacement of trees.  When warranted in the judgment of the arborist, the applicant may be required to replace, in accordance with a tree replacement plan, any tree being removed with a suitable replacement tree elsewhere on the site. In determining whether the replacement of trees is reasonable and shall be required, the arborist shall consider the intended use of the property together with an evaluation of the following:

(1)   Existing tree coverage, size and type;
(2)   Number of trees to be removed;
(3)   Area to be covered with structures, parking and driveways;
(4)   Grading plan and drainage requirements; and
(5)   Character of the site and its environs.

(c)   Approval.  If the permit application conforms to standards and guidelines and there are no objections resulting from consideration of the factors listed in subsection (a) of this section, the permit application shall be approved.

(d)   Rejection.  If the permit application does not conform to standards and guidelines or there is an objection resulting from consideration of the factors listed in subsection (a) of this section, the permit application shall be rejected. The arborist may require that the application be modified to bring it into conformance with the standards and guidelines or to eliminate any objections to the application.

(Code 1982, § 35-13; Ord. No. 811)

The decision to remove trees in the way of construction rests with the City’s arborist.  The arborist or urban forester receives guidance from the Tree Commission. The Tree Commission consists of volunteers who are city residents, eligible to vote, and approved by the City Council. Currently, the Tree Commission has one member, a botanist, and four vacancies.

On Forest Drive, the arborist permitted tree removal with the condition that one existing tree is preserved and that nine replacement trees be planted on the property once construction is complete.  The existing tree plus the nine replacement trees will provide the requisite tree canopy coverage in 10 years’ time.  However, even in 10 years, the replacement trees will not take the place of what has been removed in terms of appearance, shade or watershed protection.  Yet, it was done according to the City’s code.

Looking beyond residential construction, the City recently launched the Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Calming Plan.  Part of this plan will focus on building sidewalks to make the City more pedestrian friendly. The City’s right-of-way is where sidewalks typically are built, and many trees are currently planted in the City’s right-of-way or very close to it.  Some of these trees may survive sidewalk construction.  Others will need to be removed.

Sidewalks vs. Trees — now that will create some interesting conversations in the Little City.

The Little City’s Design Guidelines

June 17, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

June 17, 2010

Almost ten years ago, the City published the Falls Church Design Guidelines. The Design Guidelines are the community appearance component of the Comprehensive Plan.  This resource document is predominantly used in two instances:  review of commercial structures by the Architectural Advisory Board and review of historic properties (primarily residential) by the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB).  A small section of the document covers residential design and provides suggestions on achieving visual compatibility within the City’s neighborhoods.

The City’s suggestions on residential design state that the footprint, mass, forms, height and width of new construction should relate to the majority of surrounding houses.  Opting for a roof type (pitch and materials), architectural details and exterior materials similar to houses in the immediate neighborhood are suggested, as well.  Like design guidelines used by other municipalities, the City’s recommendations point toward residential designs that unobtrusively add to a pleasant visual rhythm and flow of our neighborhood streets.

Those desiring more traditional design to fit in among the City’s established neighborhoods should find the Design Guide useful.  Additionally, it is possible that a modern or contemporary design could also achieve a degree of visual compatibility amongst older houses in an established neighborhood if these suggestions were followed.  As for the actual text of the document, linked below, more specificity would be useful in defining what is meant by the terms “neighborhood” or “neighboring buildings” or “surrounding buildings.”  For instance, how far does my neighborhood extend?  And, is the house six doors down the street a neighboring building, a surrounding building, or does that term just refer to the houses on either side of mine?   If the document is updated in the future, these clarifications should be added.

Recent remarks in the Falls Church Times concerning infill houses and the future of the Woodland House and property indicate a concern with the changing appearance of our neighborhoods.  Zoning can address some aesthetic issues and does to a small extent.  For instance, the code prohibits satellite or radio antennas from being placed in front yards.  Another section of the code requires that air conditioning units be screened from pedestrian view.  And, houses on standard lots cannot be taller than 35 feet or two and a half stories whichever is less. Yet, zoning is a clunky apparatus for achieving good design respectful of neighborhood context and the Dillon rule prevents jurisdictions from heavily regulating aesthetics.

Other cities have their own design guidelines – some are much more detailed.  These cities also have the resources and staff to promote their use.  (See the guidelines used by Lake Forest, IL, for example.)  The City of Falls Church places greater emphasis and resources on how commercial buildings look and the preservation of historic buildings.  Given the need for other city services, the priorities of city resources and staffing with respect to residential design are unlikely to change.

Building a new house or renovating an old one takes considerable thought and planning. The suggestions in the Design Guidelines will not fit every situation, but they are a solid resource for city residents in the early stages of building or renovating.  The Design Guidelines can be found here.

Get A Load of This: Saturday Is Free Mulch Loading Day

May 18, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Have truck? City will load — but only this Saturday, May 22.

Falls Church Times Staff

May 18, 2010

In a few months, the just-sprouted leaves on our trees will fall to the ground and the loose leaf collection trucks will cruise through the City of Falls Church, vacuum over a thousand tons of leaves from the streets, and start the mulch pile for next season.

According to the City budget, fall leaf collection costs total $180,000.  There are no plans to change this service, though other cash-strapped jurisdictions around the country are reducing leaf collection services or requiring residents to bag their leaves for collection.

But what about the mulch that’s still sitting at the property yard from last year’s leaf collection?   It’s still there.

For the last two months, during High Mulch Season, the most direct way to get City mulch was to arm oneself with a shovel, pitchfork and bucket, and head down to the City property yard to load your car yourself with the soil-enriching, weed-suffocating goodness.

Paying a landscaping contractor to do the scooping down at the City yard has also been an alternative, though the costs outweigh the benefits rather quickly for large amounts of mulch.

But things will change soon, if only for a day.  On Saturday, May 22, anyone with an open truck can drive to the property yard, where City operations staff will use their heavy equipment and labor to load the mulch. That includes landscaping contractors, who may bring open-bed commercial trucks.  Staff will only assist loading mulch into open-bed vehicles, and you will be asked to sign a liability waiver prior to loading.  There is no limit on the number of mulch loads per customer.

The free mulch loading day event is a result of community feedback and many requests that the City provide an easier way to load the mulch.  Typically, operations staff does not work on Saturdays.  Staff working at the event will receive overtime pay, but the cost of the one-day event is much less expensive than the free delivery service provided in years past.

Is this the last call for City mulch?  Not quite.  There is a very large quantity of mulch at the property yard, and the free mulch loading day is not expected to get rid of it all.

Have weeds? The City has mulch and it needs to go.  Mark your calendar:  217 Gordon Road, May 22, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Court Upholds Building Height Limits on Substandard Lots

May 6, 2010 by · 7 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

May 6, 2010

Falls Church City’s height restrictions for infill houses on substandard lots were upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court in a ruling handed down last month.  The court confirmed a municipality’s right to impose height and other building restrictions on substandard lots within the same zoning district, as long as all substandard lots are treated uniformly. Details of the ruling can be found here.

In 2006, on the heels of the real estate bubble, the City’s zoning code was amended to limit the height of infill houses built on substandard lots. Concerns motivating the code change centered on the impact of new infill houses on the character of established neighborhoods, the loss of trees, possible shading of adjacent properties, and increased storm water run-off and stream erosion. In June 2006, the City initiated a process to examine the effects of infill development.  Changes to the code were discussed at several public hearings, after which Code 1799 was adopted in December 2006.

Per Code 1799, height limitations for infill houses on substandard lots are a ratio of the actual substandard lot size to the standard lot size for the district multiplied by the maximum height allowed.  Specifically:

R1-A:  (lot size/11,250) x maximum height of 35

R1-B:  (lot size/7,500) x maximum height of 35

Under the code, no houses built on substandard are required to have a height less than 25 feet.

What’s next?  The Zoning Ordinance Rewrite may further address the incompatibilities of infill houses on substandard lots within established neighborhoods.  Or, it may not. This is a charged topic, which is quite understandable, considering the tension at play between individual property rights and zoning to protect adjacent properties.  According to City planning staff, the final zoning rewrite draft will likely be scheduled for public review this fall.