Tree and Planning Commissions discuss loss of Charlottesville trees

Virginia State Code assigns the task of overseeing the Comprehensive Plan to the Planning Commission. Earlier this month, members of the Tree Commission urged Planning Commissioners to consider the importance of woody perennial plants. 

“Our tree canopy is declining at an increasing rate,” said Jeffrey Aten, the vice chair of the Tree Commission. “We have good intentions and are planning for a robust urban canopy in our Comprehensive Plan. But we believe more needs to be done to ensure this is the case as we build for more affordable housing and adjust streets to be more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists.” 

The city is finalizing a tree canopy study that appears to indicate the total tree canopy is at 40 percent of Charlottesville’s 10.2 square miles, down from 47 percent in 2008. The most recent report is based on data from an aerial survey conducted in 2018. 

Aten said that there are improvements that could be made to the city code to protect trees. 

“We believe that there are code issues that we can work with the Planning Commission on revising and updating,” Aten said. “Development in the city has been happening per code and staff is enforcing code but we believe the code does need to change to help preserve some existing high value trees and to really incentivize developers to work with the city to keep those trees and or plant new ones when existing ones must be removed.” 

Tree Commission Peggy Van Yahres said her group also wants to make sure there is better protection for trees during construction and greater costs to disturbing a public tree such as oaks on Garrett Street that were recently removed to make way for the redevelopment of Friendship Court. 

“In Richmond, they have an ordinance when a developer is allowed to take down a public tree they have to pay into a fund for more planting around the city and this can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Van Yahres said. “Those oaks would be conservatively estimated at $25,000 a piece so eight times 25 would be $200,000!”

Van Yahres said the Tree Commission wants the zoning ordinance to be updated to make sure trees are considered a vital asset. That means maintaining requirements that buildings be set back from the property line. The Standard on West Main Street is an example of a building constructed right to the sidewalk and public realm. 

“Some people think that means you’re going to lost a lot of land,” Van Yahres said. “We’re not talking about huge set backs. Ten feet, fifteen feet.”

The Tree Commission also wants to be able to look at site plans for large projects like Friendship Court. 

Photograph of the Standard taken in late August 2018 by Sean Tubbs. The lighting has since been turned off because the brightness was in violation of the city’s code.

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said during the code review, he wants consideration of ways to plant more trees in the right of way of streets by reducing space for cars.

“And I wonder if we can look at our rules to make it make more sense to be able to fit trees in front of buildings even without increasing set backs by using that right of way,” Stolzenberg said. 

Commissioner Jody Lahendro said the city could learn a lot from the University of Virginia regarding the treatment of trees. 

“They’ve been treating their ash trees for many, many years now to save them,” Lahendro said. “They’re adding trees all the time. They have an arboretum committee that reviews any proposal to remove a tree. Has to be approved. They have two arborists on staff.” 

Bill Palmer works in the Office of the UVA Architect and sits on the Planning Commission as a non-voting member. He acknowledged that there has been canopy loss associated with at least one major construction project at the Emmet-Ivy corridor.

“There was a landscape of trees there that is no longer there,” Palmer said. “We’ll be putting them back but trees take a long to grow. But the end result thirty years from now will be much better than what was there before and also meet UVA’s mission.” 

If you want more on this topic, go watch the Tree Commission’s Codes and Practices Subcommittee on Charlottesville’s streaming media portal. (watch)

A page from the ReLeaf Cville initiative’s brochure. The group is an initiative of the Tree Commission, the Nature Conservancy, City of Promise, Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards, and the Van Yahres Tree Company

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the March 19, 2022 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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