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FairfaxFairfax aiming to tweak rules for plantings in resource-protection areas

Fairfax aiming to tweak rules for plantings in resource-protection areas

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Proposed code amendments to Fairfax County’s public-facilities manual would reduce the required number of trees and shrubs to be planted in Resource Protection Areas (RPAs), but would save money and perhaps lead to better plant longevity, officials said.

Fairfax County Planning Commission members on May 12 unanimously recommended that the Board of Supervisors adopt the new standards.

The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance requires plantings when establishing new RPA buffers, re-vegetating disturbed RPAs and establishing vegetated areas outside RPAs to mitigate approved encroachments into those zones.


The county’s Department of Land Development Services prepared the proposed amendments in coordination with the Office of the County Attorney and Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

The proposed regulations, which have received the Engineering Standards Review Committee’s recommendation, cover five categories: overstory trees, understory trees, shrubs, permanent ground cover and temporary ground cover. With the exception of the last category, all plantings would have to be native species.

The proposed new rules would require more plantings as the size of the trees decreases, said John Friedman of the county’s Department of Land Development Services.

“The current consensus is smaller trees are more adaptable and will catch up in growth within a few short years,” he said, adding that requiring fewer shrubs and smaller trees will result in “significant cost savings.”

Officials have proposed to:

• Reduce the size of the largest overstory tree to be planted from 2 inches in diameter to 1.5.
• Reduce the largest understory tree from 2 inches in diameter to three-quarters of an inch.
• Reduce the planting density of shrubs from 1,089 to 654 per acre.

County officials frequently see “significant mortality” among shrubs planted, but wanted to strike a balance between the current standard and the approximately 350 per acre proposed under the state’s manual, said Charles Smith of the county’s Stormwater Planning Division.

County officials nearly doubled the shrub-planting figure to “increase the likelihood that we’d get a survivable shrub layer and provide that benefit ecologically,” he said.

Planning Commissioner John Carter (Hunter Mill District) called the new proposals a “good notion.”

“We’re basically planting forests,” Carter said. “That’s a difficult thing to do and I think the proposal here will accomplish that.”

Carter had only one worry: that the new rules eventually could be expanded outside of RPAs, particularly in urban zones.

“Some of these [plant] sizes will compromise our urban areas tremendously, given that many urban trees last a maximum of seven years,” he said. “If you planted a three-quarter-inch tree, it will never have much impact.”

Great Falls Citizens Association president William Canis said it might be a mistake to reduce the shrub requirements by up to 40 percent.

“The understory plants that are provided are some of the most valuable ones for all types of wildlife,” Canis said. “Because of the deer ravaging, that’s often one of the areas that’s most eliminated in forests today.”
Deer often damage trees by scraping their antlers on them, and other animals sometimes eat the bark, he said.

“What happens is, without putting a little plastic collar on the trees, which is pretty cheap, a lot of these trees that are planted die within the first year because of animal predation,” Canis said.

Work crews on county planting projects do typically protect the trees’ trunks with meshing, but were hesitant to recommend that practice for the overall policy because it would be difficult to follow up on and enforce, Smith said.

Fairfax County usually exceeds state standards for county projects and typically cares for the plants for three years after installing them, he said.

The county generally collects construction bonds for site and subdivision plans to ensure developers follow through with required plantings, but do not do so with development plans for infill lots where single-family houses will be built, Friedman said.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to review the proposed code amendments at a June 22 public hearing.

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