Treeless Towns Leave Residents Exposed

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

The naked suburb.

It has houses, yards and roads, but no large trees to shade them, no oaks to catch the rain. This place may even have a woodsy name -- it may, in fact, sound like a sylvan glade where elves dwell -- but its real-life trees are either scrawny or nonexistent. It looks like houses on a Monopoly square.

Last week, Virginia approved a law aimed at limiting these leaf-deprived developments. It would force developers to preserve old trees as they build new neighborhoods.

But for some people -- and, in an environmental sense, for all of us -- it's already too late.

"It's pretty barren. You just really see the houses and the concrete," said Teresa Veno, who lives in a four-year-old section of Ashley Ridge, a neighborhood in western Prince William County, where she said large trees are scarce.

"My daughter's 4," Veno said, "and I'm not sure she'd recognize a squirrel if she saw one."

There is no official count of how many such suburbs have been built recently across the Washington region. But it's not hard to find them: Turn off the Dulles Greenway in Leesburg, to pick one of many places, and a few minutes later you're lost among big houses adorned with little saplings.

"You will just see house after house after house, and you will just see these little stubby trees growing," said Kenneth D. Reid, a member of the Leesburg Town Council. As the area developed, Reid said, "trees just got lost."

What is clear, from multiple studies, is that the Washington region's fast-paced development has been a disaster for its trees. And, though statistics are not available for all jurisdictions, it appears that places in Northern Virginia are among the hardest hit.

In Prince George's County, the amount of forest and tree cover dropped only slightly between 1965 and 2000. Prince George's officials said they searched through 917 small subdivisions built since 1989 and found that fewer than 1 percent had not preserved any old trees.

But, in Fairfax County, the tree canopy has declined 48 percent since 1973. Leesburg, in fast-developing Loudoun County, lost 71 percent of its dense woods from 1992 to 2001.

Why would Virginia be worse? Officials blame a lack of government power: Maryland counties can force developers to save some old trees, but Virginia jurisdictions cannot in many cases.

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