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Charlottesville tree canopy in 'alarming' decline

The sky may not be falling, but the tree canopy in Charlottesville is, a situation that could worsen so-called “heat islands” and harm the health of residents.

Trees covered about 50% of the city in 2004, but the canopy shrank to 45% in 2014 and fell to 40% in 2018. And now leaders of the Charlottesville Tree Commission fear that the canopy has shrunk to just 35% of the city.

“The alarming thing was that it took 10 years to creep down 5%, and then it only took four years to decrease another 5%,” Commissioner Peggy Van Yahres told the Daily Progress.

“The irony is that we have these great vision statements that Charlottesville will be an environmental leader,” said Van Yahres. “The reality is quite different.”

Van Yahres and the commission’s Chair Jeffrey Aten will give City Council their bleak appraisal Tuesday, an appraisal that estimates that in under two decades 990 acres of trees have been lost.

Where did they go?

“I think it’s mainly development,” said Van Yahres.

Funded in part by forestry grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the city estimates the urban canopy roughly every five years. The most recent assessment was released last year after experts poring over 2018 satellite images determined the damage: Private lands saw a 7% decrease, while the canopy on public lands decreased by 3%.

The commission attributes the loss of public trees to several issues including the temporary removal of a tree-planting budget, going nearly five months without an urban forester and the death of many sidewalk trees killed by pests such as the emerald ash borer.

The written report accompanying Tuesday evening’s presentation to City Council lauds the city’s decision to budget $50,000 in the current fiscal year to remove diseased or dead ash trees. But in the short run, that removes more trees.

Meanwhile, this is a city whose leaders have been voicing a desire to counter a housing affordability problem by building upward. As planned revisions to the zoning code seem to indicate a greater interest in supplying demand, can the tree canopy rebound? Van Yahres says it’s possible.

“We know there’s a crisis in affordable housing, but we don’t think it has to be one or the other,” said Van Yahres.

The new report urges a multifold pathway: incentivizing saving trees, punishing the removal of trees and some development advice to City Council.

“Try to direct large-scale developments,” Van Yahres urged, “to land that has already been degraded such as parking lots.”

The Tree Commission also wants the planned zoning code rewrite to alter the rules that let developers get waivers from street setback requirements to encourage street- and sidewalk-shading trees.

When Van Yahres and her colleague offer the commission’s State of the Urban Forest report Tuesday, they plan not only to urge bolstered attention to trees in the rewrite of the city’s zoning code, they’ll be asking City Council for funding.

Due to the financial uncertainty in the early months of the pandemic, the city eliminated its tree-planting budget in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the planned presentation. Subsequently, the presentation asserts, tree-planting was brought back into the budget, with $75,000 allocated in 2022 and $100,000 in the fiscal year ending in June.

That money buys summertime shade only along streets, in parks or on other public land, Van Yahres said. And yet the bulk of the urban canopy comes from private property. That’s why, Van Yahres noted, that the commission helped launch ReLeaf Cville.

A public-private partnership, ReLeaf helps residents in areas that are low in income and low in shade. As the commission notes in the planned presentation, there’s a correlation between poverty and poor tree cover. Worse, there are added expenses, such as summer air-conditioning, and health detriments, such as asthma and other pulmonary conditions found in the city’s “heat islands.”

The commission noted that the city has fallen short of its own goal to plant 200 trees per year.

“It has not met this goal in any of the past five fiscal years, especially FY21 when the fiscal impact of Covid resulted in only 23 trees planted,” reads the presentation report.

That report says that 14 of the city’s 19 neighborhoods have fallen below 40% canopy cover, and two of them, Starr Hill and 10th & Page, are extremely low-canopy – that is, below 20%. That data concerned a group of five University of Virginia students who wrote a letter to The Daily Progress last year urging the city to help those neighborhoods.

“A lack of trees causes not only negative physical and psychological effects, but also economic distress,” wrote the students. “A future with more justly distributed green spaces is a more equitable future.”

Standing in his mother’s front yard in the 300 block of 10th Street on Monday, a man named Lo, who declined to give his last name, was planting 24 lily bulbs. He expressed concern that big trees might create a hazard and mentioned a recent close call with a falling oak while he slept at his home in Keswick.

“It missed the house by 4 or 5 feet,” he said. “It could have killed me.”

Lo said that he likes the idea of added trees in the neighborhood as long as the trees don’t get too big.

“It’s all about safety for my mom,” said Lo, his mother smiling approvingly.

“These houses are so close together,” he said, highlighting a more compact native tree specimen. “She loves the dogwood; it’s a beautiful tree.”


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