Arlington, VA

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

For years, County Board members have talked green about Arlington’s environmental problems.

Those issues include preserving our mature tree canopy, slowing impervious-surface increases and protecting Arlingtonians from development-and climate change-related flood risks.

But when it comes time to act green, they hide behind the Dillon Rule, claiming Arlington can’t enact stronger environmental protections without new state legislation.

Their claims are environmentally insensitive and legally incorrect. Last July’s catastrophic flooding underscores the urgency of addressing these environmental threats.

Arlington must begin using legal powers it already has to

  • preserve our remaining mature tree canopy and slow impervious surface growth

Preserving and increasing our mature tree canopy protects Arlington’s environment. Mature trees provide well-documented benefits in urban areas, including reducing energy use; removing air pollutants; improving water quality; reducing runoff volume; providing diverse wildlife habitats, increasing property values, and improving human health.

Mature trees naturally prevent stormwater runoff: their roots soak up water; their leaves intercept rainfall, and they re-emit water vapor to help cool the atmosphere.

Arlington should exercise these powers it already possesses:

Adopt a countywide stormwater utility fee (as Albemarle County already has). Stormwater utility fees are charged based on a property’s percentage of impervious surface cover, placing a greater burden on those who generate more runoff. See here and here. This fee should be enacted in addition to Arlington’s current service-district method to incentivize landowners to keep space open and green or to restore land to natural condition.

Enact a tree preservation ordinance to conserve trees during development based on Arlington’s status as an EPA-designated ozone nonattainment area. See here. Fairfax (also a nonattainment area) has such an ordinance. Passage in Arlington may help preserve trees located outside Chesapeake Bay resource protection areas (RPAs) — particularly if changes to current zoning would result in lower tree cover.

Enforce permit requirements on public sites. Arlington must stop giving itself and APS free passes when permit requirements are violated. When APS cut more trees than permitted on the Ashlawn Elementary School site, the County Board simply changed the permit terms instead of imposing penalties.

Stop relying on Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act loopholes for RPAs on public land. Projects at just 9 publicly owned sites accounted for the loss of 979 trees between 2014 and 2018.

Adopt a use-value assessment program (as Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun and others have) to reward property owners for keeping 5+ acre tracts of land open and undeveloped. Details here. While opportunities to take advantage of such a provision in land-constrained Arlington are quite limited, some of the pool clubs and other recreation associations might have sufficient land as does the Febrey-Lothrop House at Wilson and McKinley.

  • protect Arlington residents from development-and climate change-related flood risks

Leverage existing federal/other regulations to support tree preservation as a runoff-control tool. Example: Arlington’s Four Mile Run Flood Control Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires Arlington to limit “post-development peak runoff” and prevent increases in the Run’s “100-year peak flow.” See §60-11, subsection C.

Virginia law already authorizes localities to adopt stormwater management ordinances stronger than the State Water Control Board’s “minimum regulations” to avoid “excessive localized flooding within the watershed”

Arlington also should adopt and implement the Arlington County Civic Federation’s unanimous recommendations in its 2019 flood resilience resolution.

Among many excellent Civ Fed recommendations that should be adopted are:

Review existing infrastructure, especially where larger upstream stormwater pipes link to smaller downstream stormwater pipes, to identify capacity gaps, and implement plans to address such gaps.

Provide tax credits and other direct financial incentives to property owners who undertake watershed and floodwater improvement projects aligning with the County’s flood-resilience goals.

Substantially increase CIP funding to accelerate watershed, floodwater and stormwater infrastructure remediation, including relocation of sewer and stormwater pipes from areas where pipes have been repeatedly damaged or exposed.

Conclusion

The County Board is not getting correct legal advice on these environmental issues. If the Board really wants to preserve mature trees, slow impervious-surface growth, and protect Arlington residents from development-and climate change-related flood risks, the Board should seek independent legal advice that places the public interest ahead of developers’ interests.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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