Updates from Letty – May 12, 2023

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

Dear Friends,

We adopted the budget in record time, consistent with the changes we made in the markup work session. This year’s budget process had little fireworks, mostly due to a few factors – we’ve settled into the revenue sharing agreement with the schools for 4 years now and when revenues are good, it makes for relatively easy decisions to balance the needs across the city. All in all, it’s a responsible budget that invests in our top community priorities: education, housing, transportation safety, climate, and competitive employee pay. And after lowering the real estate tax rate 12.5 cents the past 2 years – while we didn’t lower it further this year, we’ve laid the foundation for strong local revenues to continue with economic development underway.

Since the budget topic will be brief, I’m going to use my post this week on a non sequitur topic that I’ve fielded a fair amount of inquiries: trees. Trees are a part of our city’s identity and values, as evident by our 45th annual recognition as a Tree City USA. As the new-ish City Council liaison to the Urban Forestry Commission, I’ll share what I’m learning.

While City Council is off next week, I will hold my monthly office hours next Wednesday, May 17 at 12 pm at Mr Brown’s Park. I look forward to seeing you or hearing from you offline.


PS – Besides the Democratic primaries underway, there are local elections this November! I’ll be participating in the League of Women Voters’ info sessions next Wednesday and next Sunday on de-mystifying the local campaign process. If you’ve ever had an inkling about running for office, come join us.

What Happened This Week:

(1) FY24 Budget Adoption

The press release does a good job recapping the highlights from this year’s budget (for FY2024 which begins on July 1) that we adopted on Monday night. If you’d like to go back to my old posts about the budget during the past 6 weeks of deliberations and public meetings, I wrote 3 posts that may be helpful:

Budget Edition #1 – Budget 101/Overview

Budget Edition #2 – All about the CIP

Budget Edition #3 – Markup

(2) Trees

As we just celebrated Arbor Day, Earth Day, and our 45th year of Tree City USA designation a few weeks ago, I want to take the opportunity to share more about the trees, especially the city’s policies and authority to govern trees, especially dispelling some common misconceptions about clear-cutting and the loss of mature trees that I know we all are concerned about. I have been the City Council liaison to the Urban Forestry Commission (UFC) the past year, so I’m learning a lot in this area and eager to share! A few starters:

  • Every time redevelopment happens, I hear and share the neighborhood concerns about the loss of mature trees and impacts to stormwater runoff – especially in our residential neighborhoods when single family redevelopment occurs (as that’s where the majority of our urban forest is). 
  • Beyond the ecological, shade/cooling, and health benefits of trees – there’s a financial one for the city too. With the millions of capital dollars we’re spending on “gray infrastructure” (bigger and more pipes to carry away rain water), we have every incentive to keep more mature trees and invest in other “green infrastructure” that better soaks up the runoff in the first place.
  • You might be surprised that the latest survey of our tree canopy shows that our tree canopy has held steady in recent years, if not increased a few percentage points to 46%, even with the development around the city.

Residential redevelopment and trees: it’s a common misconception that the city sanctions or encourages clear cutting when a small house is torn down and replaced with a bigger house. With Virginia being a strong property rights and Dillon rule state, local governments like Falls Church only have authority expressly granted by Richmond. The City can, and does, limit tree removal for residential development. Residential development projects are prohibited from disturbing any land outside the necessary construction area. And all the trees on each site, as well as neighboring trees that could be affected by the development, must be assessed by the City Arborist and protected from construction damage wherever possible. The Arborist also enforces a city policy for the removal of invasive plants and trees during the redevelopment so we can plant regionally native trees to provide a healthier tree canopy.

We know that builders build the biggest house they can due to demand and underlying high land costs, so when that happens, the main authority we have from Richmond is a requirement to achieve 20% tree canopy in 10 years through preservation or re-planting, which is already the strictest in Virginia. If we want to require more tree canopy, we’d have to seek greater authority from the General Assembly.

Commercial redevelopment and trees: compared to residential redevelopment, which largely occurs by right, we actually have more flexibility in negotiating for trees and stormwater retention with developers as part of the redevelopment process. In the majority of our projects, the new mixed use buildings have replaced parking lots and dilapidated buildings so the new trees often exceed the canopy that was previously there. We also add street trees as part of the new streetscape in our commercial corridors. What we don’t have is a standard requirement for tree canopy and green space, and instead we manage it via negotiations with every project. The UFC has been hard at work developing recommendations for City Council so that we have standards for future developments.

If you’d like more information on trees, here are some good links:

What’s Coming Up:

Wednesday, May 17 – Letty’s Office Hours (12 pm, Mr Browns Park)

Monday, May 22 – City Council Work Session*

Wednesday, May 24 – Ask the Council Office Hours (9-10 am, City Hall)

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings