Legislation in the Virginia General Assembly would broaden the authority of localities across Virginia to increase their tree canopies. Current law allows local tree programs to help replace or preserve some of the trees that would otherwise be lost to development, but only in some parts of the Commonwealth.
Tree preservation programs are authorized only in Northern Virginia and tree replanting programs are allowed only in localities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. SB 537 (Sen. David Marsden) and HB 1346 (Del. David Bulova) would allow—but not require—localities across Virginia to conserve and expand tree cover in specific cases.
Healthy trees reduce polluted runoff, mitigate local flooding, filter air pollution, cool heat-prone neighborhoods, remove carbon from the atmosphere, provide wildlife habitat, and more. The loss of trees to development is a major concern in Virginia. According to preliminary land use data from the Chesapeake Bay Program, Virginia’s annual loss of trees has been an astounding 47,000 acres per year. Some will be replanted for future timber harvests, but many are lost to development and disease.
This loss of mature trees, particularly in urban and suburban localities, harms Virginia’s efforts to manage stormwater and reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.
These bills incorporate recommendations from a 2021 stakeholder advisory work group that included conservation organizations, members of the development community, representatives from local governments, agriculture organizations, and others. An important goal of work-group members was to find ways to enhance tree cover that would work for all of these groups.
Building on this goal, for example, the legislation allows localities to increase post-construction tree canopies in specific instances, but it does not require changes to any existing tree canopy program. Similarly, while the legislation would expand the opportunities to establish tree canopy banks, no locality would be required to allow them. In an effort to provide common yet flexible canopy standards, the bills would task the State Forester with developing guidelines on specific subjects, but they do not affect silvicultural or agricultural activities.
Many localities seek to rely on trees for cost-effective flood mitigation, stormwater management, and reduce negative health impacts of urban heat, but have limited authority to do so. At least 14 Virginia localities support increased tree canopy authority in their legislative agendas, including nearly every Hampton Roads city, Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Fredericksburg, Arlington, and Fairfax.
SB 537 will be heard on February 8, 2022, by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources. A hearing on HB 1346 before the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns is expected in the next two weeks.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner issued the following statement.
“Conserving and replanting trees that would otherwise be lost to development are among the most efficient and effective ways to make communities more livable, prevent flooding, reduce pollution, and create a healthier environment. In face of the staggering rate of tree loss in Virginia, these bills—developed to take account priorities from stakeholders across a wide spectrum—will help localities across Virginia use trees to plant a better future for their neighborhoods and the people who live there. We are grateful for the thoughtful and committed work of bill patrons Del. David Bulova and Sen. David Marsden.”
# # #