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Trees Love Missing Middle Housing

County staff have released the highly-anticipated “Missing Middle Housing Framework”, a draft proposal tackling housing unavailability by allowing duplexes, townhouses, quad-plexes and in some cases even “eight-plexes” in more areas of the county. These housing types make smarter use of expensive land and allow more middle class households to achieve home ownership.

It’s set off a firestorm of controversy to say the least, but what I want to focus on right now is Arlington’s tree canopy – which is an area shaded by trees – and whether Missing Middle housing will result in the reduction of it.

What are the current regulations?

When a new detached single family home (SFH) is built, developers are required to have enough trees on the property that could provide at least 20% canopy coverage within 20 years. Townhouses, duplexes, quadplexes, and all other “Missing Middle” types of housing require only 10%-15% coverage at that 20 year mark.

Current state laws tie our hands mandating higher tree canopy requirements for new development. Those 20%, 15%, and 10% numbers are set by the Commonwealth of Virginia – and current state politics makes expanding those numbers seem like a pipe dream.

Here’s the thing, though: those numbers are not real.

The real number is 0%.

Those higher numbers only apply to new construction as it is finished and handed over to the new owners. Once the new property owner takes over, they can cut down every tree on the property with impunity. Cutting down trees doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. However, I’m hopeful denser housing will result in more opportunities for dense tree canopy, especially based on what I’ve seen right here in Arlington.

A beautiful example

A recent experience that eased my fears about losing our tree canopy came during a canvassing walk through the Forest Hills neighborhood in 22202, off of Army-Navy Drive and 23rd St South:

Map showing the borders of the Forest Hills neighborhood

Forest Hills in the Arlington Ridge area is filled with townhouses. Even more townhouses than the Missing Middle proposal would allow.

And Forest Hills is beautiful. It’s the very model of Missing Middle housing, in my opinion. Variety shines brightly in Forest Hills, where I saw units with second story patios, others with bigger front yards, and others as large as 4,000 sq/ft.

Forest Hills is designated as R-10T zoning, which is very similar to R-10 (typically 10,000 sq/ft parcels) except allowing up to twelve connected townhouses (PDF)  instead of just detached single family homes. So R-10T neighborhoods allow for even more density than the proposed Missing Middle framework with merely three townhouses per parcel.

Forest Hills comprises 16 acres of land (not including Frasier Park, which is technically within the R-10T boundaries) and has 136 units, so it’s a slightly higher average population density than Arlington as a whole. That would even include the high-rise developments around the Metro stations! This just goes to show we can do a lot with the “gentle density” of Missing Middle.

It has the same lower tree canopy minimums as all Missing Middle parcels would, with state-mandated requirements reduced from 20% to 10%. That means there would be very few trees, right?

But here’s the shocker: Forest Hills has trees. Lots of trees!

Despite having lower tree canopy requirements for Forest Hills, it still has an astounding 43% canopy coverage. That’s even higher than Arlington’s county-wide average of 41%, which includes parks and wild forested areas.

Forest Hills lives up to its name through a combination of some street trees in public right-of-ways, but primarily sharing common areas between and behind the clusters of rowhouses (maintained by the HOA) and in the front yards of the townhouses themselves to achieve that amazing 43% coverage.

So as the real world right here and right now shows, having Missing Middle density does not automatically condemn our neighborhoods to bleak treeless wastelands. Quite the contrary, the potential is there to even *increase* our overall tree coverage.

My main concern with Missing Middle had been with our tree canopy, but as I met with experts, did more research into that specific issue, and encountered real-world examples of beautiful Missing Middle that exist now, the less worried I’ve become.

What happens if it doesn’t happen?

But what happens if Missing Middle doesn’t happen? What does that future look like? It means more trees being cut down and speeding up Climate Change.

Yes, that’s right. Without Missing Middle housing we have more environmental destruction – just further out in the “exurbs” of Prince William County and Loudoun County, not here in Arlington. If we don’t reform our residential zoning to let new families, retirees, young professionals, and anyone else live in environmentally-friendly Arlington, then they’ll be forced to buy a traditional detached home in a new subdivision further out in Northern Virginia.

New subdivisions are built by strip-clearing forests (Potomac Shores in Dumfries), paving over farmland (Mayfair in Purcellville), and clear-cutting what could be a park (Enclave at Aylers Overlook in Falls Church). And since they are far away from transit it means roads and highways being widened and more cars idling in congestion during commutes to work or to pick up groceries.

What sense does it make to force people further out into literally the worst situation for trees when we can allow duplexes, townhouses, and garden condos closer to jobs and transit here in Arlington?

This isn’t just me talking – this is the core message of the renowned and well-respected Sierra Club, which enthusiastically endorsed Arlington’s Missing Middle plan: “The best way to minimize negative environmental effects … is to build more densely in already developed areas, rather than encourage sprawling, low-density development”.

Solutions, not false choices

It isn’t a battle between more housing and our trees. Those who claim we have to pick one or the other are forcing us into a false choice.

But there are measures we have to undertake in order to guarantee we have both more housing and more trees, and not leave it merely to chance.

With stricter tree canopy regulations outside our reach due to state politics, what’s an actual solution we can implement now in Arlington County? We can and must start with more aggressive enforcement of tree protection ordinances, no longer allowing developers to get away with damaging protected trees with just a slap on the wrist. But there’s something else that’s even more powerful:

Looking up at leafy trees and blue sky

Cash incentives for keeping and planting trees.

Arlington County has a Tree Canopy Fund which is operated by EcoAction Arlington and the Urban Forestry Commission under contract with the county. This fund is… well… funded by fees from developers.

Traditionally the Tree Canopy Fund only provides free native trees to homeowners, but recently it’s been allowed to also offer education, tree maintenance services, and outreach into neglected communities.

Arlington should go further to boost private funding for the program and allow it to offer cash vouchers to homeowners who preserve or plant more trees above and beyond what state regulations allow. Because if there’s one thing that we know people respond to, it’s more money in their pocket.

But I’m not done yet! 

  • Allow greater flexibility on placement of new construction in order to save mature trees on lots, reducing mandated front and backyard setback minimums.
  • There is an opportunity to credit property owners for trees that are particularly good at soaking up water with the proposed Stormwater Utility program the county is working on, although right now the county is wanting to keep as much of the utility fees as possible.
  • Implement a “tree bond” program that has developers set aside money they then get back after construction is done as long as the trees are still healthy. We should push the state legislature to make this a priority.

My pledge to you

The County Board desperately needs a problem-solver, so I will work every day for a community that tackles both the housing crisis and the climate crisis – an Arlington with more homes and more trees.
We need both, and new leadership is the only way to achieve our vision:

…community volunteers and neighborhood civic associations that are empowered to help identify problems and implement solutions instead of being shut out of the process,

…county staff that aggressively investigates and punishes developers who violate tree protections,

…a county board that embraces openness and engagement,

…and developers that are incentivized to plant trees instead of cutting them down.

I want Arlington’s Missing Middle plan to be so successful that we become a role model for the rest of the region to improve affordability, protect the environment, and increase diversity.

To help make this happen I need your vote, your advice, and your financial support. $200 is a very common donation amount, $99 is perfect for those who wish to keep their information private, and even $33 helps print a batch of postcards. Every dollar is spent wisely and with care.