Picture your ideal neighborhood. Does it have a canopy of trees that look nice, clean the air and provide shade on a sunny day?
In Virginia, localities want the ability to require more of it.
With the help and backing of environmental groups, a local delegate is pushing a bill that would give city leaders wider latitude to make real estate developers plant or replace trees when they build.
“People need to understand how vitally important trees are to addressing a wealth of environmental challenges,” said Del. Nancy Guy, whose district includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach. “They are cheap, easy and beautiful.”
When developers put in applications to build homes or businesses, they often negotiate with city officials in order to win approval, adjusting access to roadways or offering money to offset new residents’ impact on public services.
As it stands, Virginia law allows localities to make certain requirements about trees — such as mandating they cover 10% for a residential site.
Guy’s new bill, which recently cleared a House committee, would give local leaders the voluntary authority to exceed those requirements in certain situations.
The city of Virginia Beach put the bill on its annual legislative agenda, and Norfolk Councilwoman Andria McClellan has spoken in support of it in Richmond.
The commonwealth annually loses 16,000 acres of trees to development and disease, according to the state’s environmental groups. Those were trees that absorbed harmful nutrients from entering the Chesapeake Bay, intercepted stormwater and removed particulates causing respiratory issues, among other benefits, dozens of conservationists wrote in a letter to legislators last week.
“We are now in an era where it is very clear that our environmental needs and community needs for trees are growing, and in some cases urgent,” Peggy Sanner, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot. “Trees provide a cost-effective tool to address flooding, heat and climate change through regulation of greenhouse gases, and a variety of other priorities that localities have to wrestle with.”
Virginia uses a doctrine known as the Dillon Rule, meaning that localities only have authority as explicitly granted by the state. That means municipal requirements — such as those governing trees — have to be outlined at the state level.
The new legislation would only give cities the authority to exceed existing tree requirements in four situations: to comply with pollution reduction targets for stormwater systems; in any development project in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area; to ensure conformity with a locality’s comprehensive plan; and in development projects located in historically “redlined” areas.
Redlining was a way of informally segregating neighborhoods by race in the 1930s and 40s. The federal government released maps telling banks and mortgage lenders where it was safe to invest. White neighborhoods were generally marked as safe to lend money and build new homes, while Black ones were marked in red, discouraging investment in those areas, as explained in a recent Virginian-Pilot series.
One lasting impact of redlining: a lack of trees in predominantly Black and brown communities.
A Science Museum of Virginia study released last year found higher summertime land surface temperatures in formerly redlined areas of 108 American cities, with differences of 5-12 degrees. That can lead to dangerously high heat levels and resulting illness for residents.
As elsewhere around the country, conversations began and grew last year about systemic racism across the commonwealth, and one of the facets is the environment, said Sanner of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The bill merges the environmental concerns with the “historic injustice for members of our community,” she said.
The legislation has a long way to go, though.
There’s a state Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, that would stop the tree-planting powers from becoming effective unless legislators re-approve them at next year’s session. In the meantime, the state would create a work group to study the best way forward.
Andrew Clark, vice president for government affairs with the Home Builders Association of Virginia, said developers support the current Senate version, allowing them a “seat at the table” to discuss existing regulations.
Statutes about tree canopy have been on the books for decades and haven’t gotten a “holistic reevaluation” to see what’s working, Clark said. Not all localities that have been given this authority have exercised it, he noted.
“There’s pretty broad agreement in the goal: keeping trees, planting trees,” he said. “I just think these statutes are outdated and don’t really reflect modern approaches to tree preservation.”
Environmental groups in Hampton Roads are already using trees in the fight against flooding. Lynnhaven River NOW, for instance, partnered with the Ocean Lakes homeowners association to plant hundreds of trees there in the hopes they can act as a buffer against rising waters.
A former member of the Virginia Beach School Board, Guy said she wants to give local leaders another tool in their box to deal with these growing issues.
“To the layman (trees) might seem unimportant, but they aren’t.”
Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, firstname.lastname@example.org