Treeless Towns Leave Residents Exposed
Suburbanites Want More Preservation

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.

Developers, on the other hand, say the problem is too much government. Jim Williams, of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, said regulations require builders to clear large tracts for roads, gas lines and power cables.

"By the time you get finished, there ain't a hell of a lot of trees standing," Williams said. In many instances, he said, the builder's only option is to "rip 'em out, and put the new guys [new trees] back in."

The result, in the worst cases, is a neighborhood where tall trees are largely absent. This, environmentalists say, is detrimental in several ways. Losing a big tree means losing a valuable sponge for storm water, a root system that prevents erosion, and a filter that removes carbon dioxide and the precursors of smog.

"You get dirty water, and polluted everything," said Gary Moll of the conservation group American Forests. In a 2002 study, his group found that the Washington region's trees contained enough carbon to offset the annual emissions from more than 2,900 cars.

A denuded neighborhood also doesn't do much for resale values: Loudoun County real estate agents say they've seen buyers turned off by neighborhoods without large trees. They feel sterile, the agents say, too cookie-cutter.

And even for those people who do buy in, life is different. It's less private, for one thing, without branches to block one's view.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh, look, my neighbor's got new curtains in their bathroom,' " Veno said. That thought led to a troubling realization: "If I can see them, they can see me."

Virginia McGuire lives in Leesburg's Kincaid Forest neighborhood -- a semi-nude suburb, now, where the trees have grown a little. But the place still feels somewhat treeless to her, and she has found herself placing inordinate value on individual trees.

"I keep getting upset with my kids when they try to climb a tree," said McGuire, who is also chair of Leesburg's Environmental Advisory Commission. She's worried about the trees being hurt. "You can't spare any."

Last week in Richmond, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) signed a bill intended to prevent future stripped-bare suburbs. The bill, sponsored by Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax), will require Northern Virginia developers to preserve some percentage of their parcels' original trees.

If saving old trees proves impossible, the developers would replant trees or pay to preserve them elsewhere.

The bill takes effect July 1, but local jurisdictions can choose whether to follow it.

For now, local tree experts say they're uncertain what will become of today's bare suburbs. In some places, they say, today's saplings will grow big -- causing a net increase in tree cover, if the area was once bare pasture.

But in other areas, they say, the trees won't grow. Perhaps modern construction equipment will have compacted the soil so tightly that water and air can't reach the roots. Or maybe the developer planted smaller trees -- crab apple, cherry, dogwood -- that won't grow as tall as a hickory or an elm.

"It is certainly possible" that such places will grow a standard leafy-suburb canopy, said Eric Wiseman, a professor of urban forestry at Virginia Tech. "But it is often not likely."

In the meantime, another development is under way near McGuire's home in Leesburg. One afternoon she looked out at a vast expanse of bare earth and construction equipment, with a few trees lining the edges. A sign there says "Tree Preservation Area," apparently referring to these few trees left at the edges.

"This was a farm, and there weren't a lot of trees here, but there were trees here," she said. "And there's just nothing left."

Another sign with a leaf motif announced the development's name: Oaklawn.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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