Arlington, VA

Responding to increasing storms, flooding and ongoing development, Arlington County will be changing its stormwater management regulations for single-family home construction projects.

The new requirements — and how they came about — have developers worried.

Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services will require developers to use tools such as water storage tanks to ensure new homes can retain at least 3 inches of rain, which will affect applications submitted after Sept. 13, 2021.

Currently, developers are only on the hook to improve the quality of water runoff, using rain gardens, planters, permeable driveways and tree cover.

DES staff tell ARLnow the new system will manage more water, protect downhill properties, reduce plan approval times, and give homeowners stormwater facilities that are feasible to maintain.

In a statement, staff said the change “reflects future-focused and balanced responsiveness to a diverse customer base that includes downhill neighbors, property owners, and builders.”

But some developers who work in Arlington County says the changes blindsided them and they want more input. They predict significant potential cost increases to homeowners and argue that this shifts the burden onto individuals, rather than placing responsibility with neighborhoods or the county itself.

“There is broad concern with the roll-out of this,” said Yuri Sagatov of Sagatov Homes. “There are just a lot of questions and there aren’t a lot of answers. We’re all waiting to get more information from the county to see how the changes might impact properties.”

Staff said these changes were precipitated by the increase in heavy rainfall, the growing intensity of storms, and a sense among residents that the county is not doing enough to protect properties — particularly those that are downhill from development, from the runoff caused by new homes.

A county study last summer found that the soil under new homes is 10 times less permeable than the soil under existing homes, staff said.

With the tanks, which appear to be above ground in photos, the goal is to retain rainwater during flash flooding events like that of July 8, 2019.

“Gravity detention tanks… promote a ‘slow it down and soak it in’ strategy to capture and release runoff slowly as a more robust and reliable way to handle intense rainfall,” says a DES memo.

It seems like a feasible alternative to more expensive underground systems, but the challenge will be blending them in aesthetically.

“They are talking about massive above ground cisterns,” the owner of one remodeling firm told ARLnow. “I would think neighbors would hate this. They’re going to be hideous.”

As for engaging developers during the process, county staff said enhancements to an existing program only require the county to consult with stakeholders. The county surveyed neighbors, home builders and engineers in 2019 and met with engineers early this year.

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(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Arlington County is moving forward with a project to restore Donaldson Run Tributary B despite some vocal public opposition.

On Tuesday, the County Board voted 4-1 to award a $1.5 million contract to restore a segment of the stream beginning at N. Upton Street and extending about 1,400 feet downstream to where it meets with Donaldson Run Tributary A in Zachary Taylor Park. Takis Karantonis cast the dissenting vote.

The vote came after a handful of locals criticized the proposed project for sacrificing trees, as well as allegedly misusing taxpayer dollars and ignoring changing scientific opinions.

With the vote, the county will use an approach similar to the one taken in 2006 to restore Donaldson Run Tributary A.

The project will address “critical infrastructure, public safety and environmental threats,” the county said. It “will stabilize the stream’s eroding banks to protect existing stream valley infrastructure, including the threatened water main and sanitary sewer, which crosses the stream and runs parallel to it.”

Staff said 83 trees will be axed as part of the project, which has been in the works since 2004.

Board Chair Matt de Ferranti told public speakers he agreed with many of their points but he is ultimately supporting what county staff recommended.

“We need to work on impervious cover and climate change but we also lost more than 20 trees since 2017 due to some of the washout that has come,” he said.

Critics weren’t convinced.

The restoration of Tributary A “failed miserably,” said Rod Simmons, who said he worked on the project and argued that it actually made flooding and runoff worse. Those recommending a different solution say theirs is cheaper, less intensive, and will save more trees.

“I am heart-sick at the devastation of the Donaldson Run ecosystem that will result from this project but I am even more distressed at the systemic discounting of the importance and integrated nature of the unique ecosystems in Arlington such as Donaldson Run,” said Mary Glass, a local resident. “For more than a decade, concerned citizens have provided valuable information on the adverse impact of this project and constructive alternatives to reach the same results…It’s a shame that despite all of this, no significant modification has occurred.”

Karantonis argued that the area needs restoration but 83 felled trees is too high a price.

“I don’t think we did everything we could to minimize impact,” he said.

But Jason Papacosma, the watershed programs manager for Arlington County, said the method suggested by the advocates is not applicable to the “very high-energy environment” of Donaldson Run.

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The Arlington County Board is slated to review a restoration project for Donaldson Run Tributary B next week.

The Board is scheduled to vote at its Tuesday meeting on whether to award a $1.5 million contract to restore a segment of the stream beginning at N. Upton Street and extending about 1,400 feet downstream to where it meets with Donaldson Run Tributary A in Zachary Taylor Park, according to a county report.

The project will address “critical infrastructure, public safety and environmental threats,” the county said. It “will stabilize the stream’s eroding banks to protect existing stream valley infrastructure, including the threatened water main and sanitary sewer, which crosses the stream and runs parallel to it.”

This restoration project has been in the works since 2004 when the Donaldson Run Civic Association designated it a priority Neighborhood Conservation project, according to a county website. The project received funding in 2007 and the county completed its plans for restoration in February 2020 after a lengthy design and public engagement process.

In the intervening years, erosion and storm damage, including the July 2019 flash flood, have gouged out the banks, uncovering a 30″ water main and sanitary sewer line, which triggered emergency repairs. The two forces have also felled about 20 trees along the tributary since 2017.

This erosion “threatens the Zachary Taylor hike-bike trail and public safety and is undermining streambank trees,” the staff report said. “Sediment eroded from the stream has accumulated downstream, compromising the integrity of a prior stream project, the Donaldson Run Tributary A project completed in 2006.”

According to the county website, the project also aims to help the reduce pollution, protect the multi-use trail and restore native vegetation to the area, described as “overrun” with invasive plants such as kudzu and English ivy.

About 83 trees will be removed during the project. In their place, 332 native trees, 180 shrubs, 200 live stakes — cuttings that will grow into trees — and more than 4,000 herbaceous plants will be planted, a county spokeswoman said.

The county says it will use a technique called “natural stream channel design” to create a new stream channel that can better manage the runoff it receives from the surrounding land.

Some critics, however, oppose the chosen restoration method as well as the resultant tree removal. The Arlington Tree Action Group said the project has not been updated to account for climate change and new sustainability goals. Over the last few years, the group has voiced its opposition to the number of trees that could be axed.

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New Arlington construction is helping the Commonwealth become more green.

Virginia is ranked eighth in the country for LEED-certified space per capita, the U.S. Green Building Council announced earlier this month. This is in large part because of Arlington County, which accounted for more than 15% of the newly LEED-certified buildings in the state in 2020.

Some newly-certified buildings in Arlington include:

  • The Waycroft at 750 N. Glebe Road (LEED Gold, apartment)
  • 400 Army Navy Drive (LEED Gold, apartment)
  • Landbay D West at 3400 S. Clark Street (LEED Silver, apartment)
  • 4040 Wilson Blvd (LEED Gold)
  • 4000 N. Fairfax Drive (LEED Gold, apartment)
  • 4250 N. Fairfax Drive (LEED Platinum, office)
  • 1400 Crystal Drive (LEED Gold, office)
  • 1777 N. Kent Street (LEED Silver, office)
  • Jefferson Plaza at 1401 S. Clark Street (LEED Silver, office)
  • Wilson School at 1601 Wilson Blvd (LEED Gold, K-12)
  • 1440 N. Edgewood Street (LEED Gold, office)
  • AHRI at 2311 Wilson Blvd (LEED Silver, office)
  • Arlington County DHS Head Start at 2920 S. Glebe Road (LEED Gold, K-12)

There’s also one project that’s “confidential,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Much of the increase in LEED-certified development is a result of the county’s voluntary green building program, which offers developers bonus density in exchange for their building meeting certain LEED certification standards, the council said.

Arlington, far and away, is definitely the most progressive county in the state when it comes to certification,” says Mark Bryan, U.S. Green Building Council’s director for the National Capital Region. “That’s really because of [county] policy, which is one of the first and most successful voluntary incentive programs in the country.”

LEED certification is, admittingly, a bit complex. It’s essentially a system of points that are given for adhering to meeting certain standards mainly focused on energy, water waste, indoor air quality, transportation, materials, and site selection of the building.

The highest certification is LEED Platinum, followed by Gold, Silver, and Certified.

Just this past December, the county updated its program so that buildings now need to meet LEED Gold certification standards to receive the bonus density incentive.

County zoning ordinances place density and height restrictions on developments. Bonus density means they can add additional space to the development that they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to have.

The reason the county wants more LEED-certification buildings is, as noted in a December 2020 report, to lower carbon emissions.

“The Green Building Incentive Policy is the primary tool currently available to encourage the private sector to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in new construction to help achieve Arlington’s long-term carbon emission goals,” reads the report.

Bryan says the county is succeeding in its goals because they are trading something that developers want.

Arlington has done this quite successfully by providing something that’s extremely valuable to developers, particularly those in Northern Virginia,” says Bryan. “And that’s bonus density… and height.”

Offering bonus density is also something the county has done to encourage more affordable housing construction.

In Arlington, the structures receiving LEED certification in 2020 included six office buildings, five apartment buildings, two schools, and one retail building.

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The Arlington County Board is going to consider adding food scraps collection to its solid waste services in the 2021-22 budget.

This change would allow residents to toss their food scraps with their yard waste in the existing green bins. All the organic material would be taken to a composting facility and the new service would cost less than $12 annually for those paying the household solid waste rate, according to county staff.

“We should have more information in the spring,” Dept. of Environmental Services spokeswoman Katie O’Brien told ARLnow in an email.

The county is mulling the move after being encouraged by positive community feedback. A majority of residents, surveyed in November and December, said they support mingling food scraps and yard waste. The survey garnered 3,973 respondents, of whom 79% supported the addition of food scraps to their organics carts, O’Brien said.

DES pushed out the feedback form to the household trash and recycling email list, which has about 27,575 people signed up for it, added DES spokeswoman Jessica Baxter.

“We believe there is a great support for the program — as evidenced by the feedback form and what we’ve heard through the years since introducing the green organics cart with year-round yard waste,” she said.

This potential service change would only be available to those who receive residential waste collection from the county — mostly people in single-family homes, as opposed to apartment and condo residents served by private waste haulers.

Currently, all county residents can drop off their scraps at Earth Products Recycling Yard in Shirlington (4300 29th Street S.) or the Columbia Pike Farmers Market on Sundays. The county also provides instructions for backyard composting.

Arlington’s quarterly trash audits have revealed that food scraps make up more than 20% of what residents throw out. According to the county’s website, collecting food scraps would support the county’s goal of diverting up to 90% of waste from incineration by 2038.

During the week, residents would collect their fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy in a countertop pail. Once the pail fills up, residents would place the scraps — bagged in paper or compostable bags — in their green organics cart and take it to the curb on trash pickup day.

To limit odors, staff recommend lining the pail with a bag, emptying it regularly and rinsing it occasionally. Freezing the scraps also reduces odors. Like the yard trimmings, food scraps will be brought to a permitted composting facility.

The County has collected grass clippings, cut flowers, brush, hedge trimmings and leaves year-round since 2016.

Photo (top) by The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

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That’s one of the questions Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation is asking as it begins a two year-long process to update its Forestry and Natural Resources Plan (FNRP). The new plan will include “a variety of long-term goals, strategies and priorities that address tree canopy in a comprehensive, systematic manner,” according to the project website.

The public is now being asked to weigh in on how to improve nature, tree canopy and natural areas within the 16,500 acres of a county that, as of 2017, has a tree canopy of 41%. That’s the same percentage as when the FNRP’s predecessor, the 2004 Urban Forest Master Plan, was approved.

The visioning and information gathering process for the FNRP began in November and will continue through next February with yet-to-be-scheduled community and focus group meetings. A draft plan will be drawn up for public review by September 2021, and, after another period of public engagement the final draft plan is scheduled to come out in February 2022,  with County Board approval set for May 2022.

The FNRP is part of the Public Spaces Master Plan (which is a component of the County’s Comprehensive Plan) and will “serve as the guiding document for Arlington County’s management practices related to trees, plants, wildlife and more,” according to the project website. “This plan will cover topics regarding impacts and opportunities related to Arlington’s tree canopy, natural lands, urban development, wildlife, recreation, public education and stewardship among others.”

Questions to the public include:

  • How frequently do you visit Arlington’s natural areas (e.g., forests/ woods, meadows, streams, etc.)?
  • What are your favorite types of natural areas to visit?
  • What do you think are the best ways to conserve and expand Arlington’s natural resources?
  • If you could snap your fingers, what would be your one wish to improve nature in Arlington?
  • What do you think is the biggest threat to the future of Arlington’s natural resources and tree canopy?
  • What would you hope Arlington’s natural resources and tree canopy look like in 30 years?
  • What areas of opportunity are there to EXPAND Arlington’s tree canopy?

The county produced a video, below, to promote the update to the plan and the accompanying public survey.

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If you’ve ever dreamed of filling an empty space with a towering scarlet oak tree in your neighborhood, at your place of worship or in your yard, now’s your chance to get it delivered and planted for free through EcoAction Arlington‘s Tree Canopy Fund.

The application deadline for free trees to be planted on private property is Friday, January 8. There are 11 tree varieties available for individuals, nonprofits, civic and homeowner associations and a number of other groups.

“The Tree Canopy Fund is limited to property owners planting trees on private property,” according to EcoAction Arlington. “We can’t accept applications for planting on school property, parks, or other property maintained by Arlington County or Arlington Public Schools.”

Available trees include American beech, tulip, white oak, willow oak, red oak and bald cypress.

Separate applications must be made for anyone wanting more than one tree, and successful applicants will need to send in a picture of where they want their young tree planted. When it arrives, it should be about two inches wide and up to seven feet tall. Some of the trees will grow upward of 50 feet, like the white oak, which can stretch to 80 feet at full maturity.

The effort is intended to increase Arlington’s tree canopy, which stands at 41%, as of 2017. The Tree Canopy Fund was founded in 2009, and since then more than 1,200 trees have been planted.

Here’s the application and planting schedule:

  • Fri., Jan. 8, 2021: Deadline to submit an application
  • Mid-to-late Feb. 2021: Applicants will be notified of final decision
  • March/April 2021: EcoAction Arlington will contact applicants with an estimated planting date. Trees will be planted by the end of April.

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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Arlington County is looking at ways to make composting easier for residents.

County staff are considering a collection service that would allow residents to mix their food scraps with their yard trimmings for collection. They are asking residents to share their thoughts in a survey available through Friday, Dec. 4.

Quarterly trash audits reveal that food scraps make up more than 20% of the residential waste stream. Staff said collecting food scraps would support the County’s goal of diverting up to 90% of waste from incineration by 2038.

According to the County’s website, the weekly service would cost less than $12 annually, far less than the City of Falls Church, which charges $66, and the rates of private haulers, which charge up to $360.

“Many communities have successfully implemented food scraps collection programs in the manner proposed by the County,” the website said. “By implementing a food scrap collection program, residents would increase the County’s recycling rate, reduce the amount of County trash incinerated, create soil amendments and depending on individual actions, save money, reduce food waste, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

During the week, residents would collect their fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy in a countertop pail. Once the pail fills up, residents would place the scraps — bagged in paper or compostable bags — in their green organics cart and take it to the curb on trash pickup day.

To limit odors, staff recommend lining the pail with a bag, emptying it regularly and rinsing it occasionally. Freezing the scraps also reduces odors. Like the yard trimmings, food scraps will be brought to a ” Virginia-permitted composting facility certified by the U.S. Composting Council.”

The County has collected grass clippings, cut flowers, brush, hedge trimmings and leaves year-round since 2016.

(The service is available to those who receive residential waste collection from the county — mostly those in single-family homes. Apartment and condo residents are typically served by private waste collection haulers.)

“The year-round program has been very successful — so much so that the County is now considering the addition of leftover food scraps including fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy,” the county said.

Currently, all Arlingtonians can bring scraps to the Earth Recycling Yard at the Arlington County Trades Center from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Some farmers markets also recycle food scraps.

The County sees a food scrap collection service as a chance to educate people about reducing food waste and improving the environment.

In addition to saving households money, the County website on food scrap collection said there are other benefits to preventing food waste, including “learning to make better use of leftovers, minimizing spoilage by storing refrigerated and perishable items properly, and most importantly, that each of us has a direct role in reducing food waste both inside and outside the home.”

It listed several environmental benefits: reducing methane emissions from landfills, conserving energy, and reducing pollution.

Compost pail photo by The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

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Morning Notes

Greens Want Tax Hike for New Initiative — “The Arlington Green Party is seeking a five-fold increase in one local tax in order to fund an environmental initiative. The party in late October promoted the idea of the county government giving owners of single-family properties in Arlington $1,000 credits to have energy audits conducted and then take cost-effective steps to improve efficiency…. The party wants to increase the existing utility tax from $3 per household per month to eventually hit $15 per household per month.” [InsideNova]

Looking On the Bright Side — “And the winner is: free paper yard waste bags. Available at five County sites during leaf season.” [@ArlingtonDES/Twitter, Arlington County]

Improvements Proposed in Seven Corners — “The Virginia Department of Transportation has provided another in a series of updates on potential improvements being studied along Route 50 (Arlington Boulevard) between Jaguar Trail and Wilson Boulevard in the Falls Church/Seven Corners area.” [InsideNova, VDOT]

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Members of the Arlington County Board say that before they enact a local tax on plastic bags, they need time to identify and avoid the unintended consequences of one.

“The most vulnerable suffer the most from pollution and will suffer the most when we try to clean it up,” Board Chair Libby Garvey said during the County Board recessed meeting on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re going to try and do it right and be aware of the pitfalls, and there are a lot.”

In March, the Virginia General Assembly passed SB11, a bill that allows municipalities to collect a tax of five cents on disposable bags. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law on April 10. The proceeds of the tax would be used for environmental purposes.

“Based upon revenue generated from similar taxes in the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Maryland, the tax proposed in this bill could potentially generate aggregate local revenues between $20.8 million and $24.9 million annually” statewide, the bill’s impact statement said.

The 5-cent tax has the support of EcoAction Arlington, an environmental advocacy group, which launched a petition this fall. The group aims to have 1,500 signatures by the November Arlington County Board meeting.

“Presently, 471 local ordinances have been adopted in cities and counties across 28 states,” the petition said. “We believe Arlington should be the next county to take this important step forward.”

Staff have been and are working through policy issues and how to engage Arlingtonians, with a specific focus on how this would work during the pandemic, said Deputy County Manager Michelle Cowan.

A proposed timeline would start with a “robust” engagement of stakeholders in January, she said. An ordinance could be drafted in February. The law requires it be adopted by April 1 to be effective on July 1, Cowan said.

County Board Member Christian Dorsey said April may be too early, and wants to hold off until the community is optimistic that the pandemic is over. He said he worries that the tax would hurt the vulnerable and low-income residents of Arlington, “during a time when we are all hoping to prioritize getting them safely and healthily through the pandemic.”

Board Member Takis Karantonis encouraged county staff to include the most vulnerable in the county’s outreach efforts.

“It’s a very good point to think about how to introduce multi-use bags and create a culture that helps those who are the most vulnerable,” he said.

Members Matt de Ferranti and Katie Cristol also wanted to pump the brakes and review the potential tax in February or March when they have more information.

“I know there is a strong desire to see this plastic bag tax in effect on Jan. 1, and I associate myself with that impatience to make these big strides on environmental protection,” Cristol said, before adding that additional time is needed for a more thoughtful and equitable approach.

In the same meeting, Dorsey told members about new goals to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The association adopted a plan in 2008 to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% from the baseline in 2005 by 2050, Dorsey said.

“There was a significant decrease at the start, but that has resulted in a plateau over the last several years,” he said.

Pushing through the plateau will require retrofitting homes, ensuring new home construction is energy efficient and moving buses and passenger vehicles toward zero-emissions, he said.

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Morning Notes

Soldiers Nearly Struck By SUV on TV — “Two soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment — also known as the The Old Guard — gave D.C. early morning viewers a real-time safety briefing when a driver nearly ran them down in the background of a live TV report on” safety changes around Memorial Circle. [Military Times, WJLA]

APS Not Releasing Some COVID Info — “Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said 11.7 percent of school staff have ‘been excluded from work due to COVID health and safety procedures’… [Bellavia] refused to say how many schools within Arlington have seen cases of the virus, calling building-level data “private health information.” [Washington Post]

Local Resident Charged With Election Felony — “Jacob Wohl and [Rosslyn resident] Jack Burkman were charged with four felonies of intimidating voters, conspiring to violate election law and using a computer to commit a crime, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Thursday, after thousands of residents from at least five states received the robocall aimed at discouraging absentee voting.” [Washington Post]

E*Trade Acquisition to Close — Morgan Stanley is expected to complete its $13 billion acquisition of Arlington-based E*Trade today. The online brokerage was founded in Silicon Valley but eventually came to be headquartered in Arlington after it acquired Arlington-based Telebanc in 2000. [Virginia Business]

Sierra Club Calls for Electric Metrobus Fleet — “The environmental group has laid out a detailed process by which it believes Metro can get to fully electric by 2045. It proposes that the transit agency convert half of its fleet by 2030, 75 percent by 2035, 90 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2045.” [Washington Post]

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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