© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bills to preserve trees during home building awaiting action from Youngkin

Photo courtesy - Felix Mittermeier, Pexels
Photo courtesy - Felix Mittermeier, Pexels

CORRECTION: A previous copy of this story incorrectly attributed a different author. It has been corrected. We apologize for the inconvenience.

When Dr. Seuss wrote his book The Lorax, a story about a creature who works to save trees from the destruction of a businessman known as the Once-ler, he probably didn’t think it would come up during the Virginia General Assembly.

But it did, with Sen. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, moving to pass a bill dealing with tree conservation and replacement “on behalf of the Lorax” earlier this year.

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

That legislation, from Del.  Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, is one of three proposals awaiting a signature from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin that aim to expand the powers local governments have to preserve their tree canopy.

Environmental groups have pushed for the bills by pointing to the numerous climate benefits trees offer, ranging from cooling neighborhoods to sequestering carbon, limiting erosion and capturing pollution that would otherwise run into waterways.

“Trees act like sponges,” said Ann Jurcyzk of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation during one hearing. “Once we remove them, once we remove that canopy, we’re creating additional impervious surfaces — that’s the roofs and parking lots and driveways. That increases the amount of stormwater that localities have to control.”

But at least one proposal has sparked concern from developers, who worry it could let governments impose strict requirements on projects that would drive up costs.

“There needs to be some ability to work with the locality and be less rigid,” said Andrew Clark, vice president of government relations with the Home Builders Association of Virginia. “If you work with the development community…you see a lot more developers, saying, ‘alright we can we can preserve more open space, preserve more trees.’ It just seems like [a] more collaborative approach instead of just a top down-mandate.”

Christian Martinez, a spokesman for Youngkin, said in an email, “The Governor is reviewing the legislation that has been delivered to his desk, as he continues to watch how the General Assembly chooses to act on other important priorities.”

Replacement of trees

Currently, localities that are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed or have a population density of at least 75 people per square mile have the authority to adopt ordinances that require developers to replace trees that are lost during the homebuilding process. For example, local governments can require developers to plant enough trees to cover certain percentages of a site after 20 years.

Hope’s legislation,  House Bill 529, would extend that authority to all localities statewide.

The idea, said Jurczyk, is to require that the overall number of trees on a parcel remains stable but give developers flexibility to construct projects as they wish without requiring them to preserve specific trees.

Expanding that authority statewide could have one of the greatest impacts on Virginia Beach, which in  2014 set a goal of expanding its amount of land covered by trees from 36% to 45% in 20 years. While 31% of the city lies within the Bay watershed, 69% of it does not, meaning the locality isn’t able to enforce its tree replacement requirements there.

Virginia Beach said in an email the city has no stance on the bill, but representatives from neighboring localities, including Norfolk and Hampton, spoke in favor of it.

“We’ve studied this,” said Bonnie Brown, director of community development for the city of Hampton. “We know tree canopy is one of the most important green infrastructure assets that the city can tap into.”

Hope’s bill would also allow localities to require developers to give them money if certain percentages can’t be met. The locality can then dole out those funds to community groups to maintain newly planted trees. 

Conservation of trees

House Bill 1100 from Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, would also expand the reach of an existing tree law. 

Current law lets localities in Planning District 8 — a region encompassing the densest parts of Northern Virginia — pass ordinances to require the conservation of trees during land development. If passed, those rules can prohibit developers from disturbing existing trees while they build new structures. 

Older trees tend to provide more ecological benefits than younger ones, environmental groups argue.

“If you can keep on site a 50-year old tree, that thing is providing so many environmental and habitat benefits,” said Jurczyk.

Carr’s bill would let all local governments have those powers. 

Sheri Shannon, co-founder of Richmond-based Southside ReLeaf, an environmental group that advocates for tree preservation, said Richmond hasn’t been able to pass ordinances to restrict developers from razing tree stands, even though the city set a goal to have  30% tree canopy coverage in all neighborhoods.

“It’s really important the [development] focus isn’t just on gray infrastructure,” said Shannon. “It has to be on green infrastructure, greening solutions as well.”

Shannon said Richmond isn’t alone in wanting to pass conservation ordinances. “This gives localities the ability to say this is how we want to build, we want to make sure green space and tree areas are incorporated as we develop and grow,” she said.

But some developers have argued the tree conservation requirements all local governments could be allowed to impose are impractical. They say mandating certain amounts of trees at a site could lead to less dense developments that could in turn drive up housing costs because fewer are available.

“Everyone agrees that tree preservation is a great thing and makes our communities better, but we’ve also got to hold strong the need to put more units on the ground, or else we’re just gonna keep perpetuating this problem where incomes aren’t keeping pace with housing costs, and we’ve got folks stretching their budgets well beyond what’s sustainable and healthy for income,” said Clark of the Home Builders. “Developers will find a way to make these ordinances work, but it may undercut localities’ objective to provide an array of housing. That’s just kind of a trade-off.”

Similarly, Randall Grumbine, executive director of the Virginia Manufactured and Modular Housing Association, said the “vast majority” of the homes its members build “are going to be in that highest category requiring 30% or greater tree canopy coverage and also require septic systems to be installed. … When you have to clear a large area to provide a septic field, it’s difficult to get the canopy coverage that this bill would require.”

Phil Abraham, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association for Commercial Real Estate, told lawmakers that even in Northern Virginia, conservation ordinances haven’t been widely adopted by local governments. 

“Fairfax County has adopted this statute, but in the 16 years it’s been in existence, that’s the only major jurisdiction in Northern Virginia that has adopted it,” Abraham said. “Not Prince William, not Loudoun, not Arlington, not Alexandria. They all have gone with tree replacement statutes or a variation thereof.”

A credit for trees

The third bill,  House Bill 459 from Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, would let local governments offer developers a credit that could reduce their tree replacement requirements if the developer allowed the locality to review their tree-planting plan prior to finalizing their development proposal. 

The idea is to give localities the ability to encourage conservation of mature trees instead of planting younger replacement trees after development. Having the review upfront would allow plans to be altered before design dollars are already spent, Jurczyk said.

“Let’s look at the site ahead of time. Let’s determine what’s feasible,” said Jurczyk. “We want to be intentional about what we preserve.”

The proposal is the result of a 2022 workgroup formed to make legislative recommendations regarding tree canopy that balanced environmental and development interests.

“You all participated in a very historic meeting this morning to see consensus on a tree bill,” Sullivan said in committee testimony.