Aging Reston Trees - Whose Problem Are They?

Tall trees toppling in storms highlight issue of tree pruning, removal and division of responsibility.

Twice this summer, decades-old trees in Reston were toppled by unusually high winds.

The blew through with winds at 73 miles per hour.sure felt like a tornado to residents on Scandia Circle and South Shore Road, who suffered huge property damage in the short but powerful storm.

Living in Reston means shaded patios and wooded lots. It means green space and estrictions on when and why you can cut down a tree on your property.

But as the lots age and the freak storms get more frequent, residents are asking - are toppling trees going to be a continued problem? And if so, whose responsibility is it? The large tree that severely damaged townhouses on Scandia Circle appears to have fallen from Bentana West Cluster property.

"In Bentana West, there's always a heated battle whenever a resident raises the issue of cluster tree care (or removal)," one resident commented on Patch. "I'm sure after this latest we're in for another heated round of discussion. It’s very easy to say 'we must keep every tree in Reston' when those trees aren’t falling on your house. Perhaps it’s time for both the RA and clusters to adopt a realistic plan to tree conservancy, rather than the current 'ignore it and wait till it falls' approach."

Says another reader: "A big part of the reason that I bought my home in the South Lakes area of Reston 26 years ago was because of the large trees all around the house. After all this time, though, these trees are 26 feet taller 26 years older and not all of them are doing so well.

"Neighbors on my street had a tree come down on their house during the Derecho  and I've had many limbs come down in these storms, though no property damage, thank heavens," he added. "Perhaps it's time to review Reston's policy of not allowing us to take big trees down around our homes. Some of them have lived their useful lives and need to go before they destroy ours."

Reston Association president Ken Knueven says resident concerns are understandable.

"These storms were fierce," he said. "Every time we get something like this, we expect concerns. One of our strengths is we are a community with a lot of trees. That's why a lot of people choose to live here. More times than not we hear concerns about us removing too many trees."

RA Parks Director Larry Butler says a treed lot comes with benefits - and responsibility.  

"Homeowners, or potential homeowners, choose a treed lot for multiple benefits – a choice they make, and one that should come with knowing or learning the responsibilities of owning a lot with trees," he said.

"Proper arboriculture would have tree owners get their trees assessed periodically for disease, cracks, abnormalities etc. and even some pruning to reduce the density of the canopy, thereby allowing more wind to pass through the tree.  This type of pruning may not prevent a tree from coming down – given the severity of the storm encountered, but it can help.

While even the healthiest tree might not be a match for a 75 mph wind, there are things homeowners and Reston Association can do to ensure tree safety.

"There is nothing that RA or anyone else can do to prevent tree failure in a tornado, violent thunderstorm or Derecho," says Claudia Thompson-Deahl, Reston Association Environmental Resource Manager and a certified arborist.

Thomson-Deal says RA staff regularly walks all of the open space and pathways checking for hazardous trees.  

If a tree is on RA common property, RA is responsible for it - even if it falls onto a home or other private property, she said. She suggests that clusters and individual homeowners also be proactive in caring for trees.

"Homeowners are responsible for their trees, " she said. "RA is responsible for trees on RA property and clusters are responsible for trees on cluster property. 

Homeowners can (and should) prune trees regularly so they are a healthy size. 

The rule on tree removal: Owners must obtain Design Review Board approval to remove any live ornamental tree (such as dogwood, holly, cherry, etc.) regardless of size or location. They must obtain DRB approval to remove any other large tree, either deciduous or evergreen, whose trunk measures 4 inches or greater in diameter (12 1/2 inches in circumference) when measured four feet above the ground, regardless of location.

More information can be found here:http://bit.ly/U4Ukz5

Knueven said RA arborists can visit homeowners and give advice, but they cannot do the work. RA also maintains a list of licensed arborists to call.

John Farrell September 12, 2012 at 11:31 AM
Isn't this the same Larry Butler who oversaw the unnecessary clear cutting of more than 3,000+ trees in Snakeden? Isn't this the same Larry Butler who refused to disclose the number of trees he cut down for over a year? Larry gets to cut down all the trees he wants on RA land but he thinks a homeowner is trapped living with the constant threat of being killed by trees they own should just accept it. Callous much? RA needs to let homeowners take reasonable steps to remove those very few living trees that threaten their lives and their homes without the DRB torture process. Will someone have to die before some practicality enters the picture?
Humble Parent September 12, 2012 at 12:02 PM
When I was on a townhouse cluster board we hired an arborist to draw up a plan of trees that needed immediate attention, trees that could wait a few years and trees that were healthy. It was an excellent way to take the emotion out of tree care and removal and allows a cluster to budget for the future.
Bethany Hannan September 12, 2012 at 01:19 PM
I don't have any trees on my lot - yet I was almost hit by one this past weekend as it fell and one at the corner of my property (on cluster property) fell over a week after the derecho. The one in July was obviously diseased - half of it was dead and there were mushrooms growing on it, yet no one did anything. What am I supposed to do about trees on cluster and RA property that are obviously diseased? I can't do anything as these trees are not on my property.
BBurns September 12, 2012 at 01:41 PM
I agree with Larry Butler that trees be assessed periodically. Unfortunately, there are arborists who are influenced by the money they make taking down trees. In many cases, If you call an arborist to look at a few trees, he generally doesn't make a dime until he does some work. You can take that influence out of the equation. We have our yard surveyed by an arborist who is solely a consultant (Ed Milhous of www.treesplease.com). I was advised by an RA staffer to carry a tape recorder when he walked our property - he is a walking tree encyclopedia and fascinating. When even a highly qualified arborist is pushed by his company to bring in the bucks, it can affect decisions. We had a holly tree fall, and a very experienced, knowledgable arborist told us to take it down. Instead we had him put it back and attach guy wires. Seven years later it's thriving - and the birds had the shelter and berries that cold winter. And there are those less qualified or ethical who want nothing more than to scare people into emptying their wallets. Of course a tree audit isn't the entire answer, it's just one piece of the puzzle.
Reston Resident September 12, 2012 at 01:45 PM
I'm with "humble parent" I live in one of the highly damaged storm areas. I also grew up in the tornado ridden Mid-West. Speak with a non interested party arborist (not a "tree cutter") to gain a reasonable perspective. As in the article, no tree healthy or otherwise, could have faired well in certain storm circumstances. Have we already forgotten the blazing hot summer? Personally, I chose to live in Reston, not Ashburn, specifically for the old neighborhoods and trees. Consider the summer energy savings and weigh the costs. It is absolutely terrible to deal with these circumstances but truly we are blessed to have faired so well. Consider those who are truly displaced and starving from earth quakes for example. It's best to step back, deal with the cleanup and repair, move on and be thankful for the beautiful wooded spaces Reston offers. If you decide it's unreasonable to leave older trees standing there are other places that may fit your needs. I chose Reston and I hope the trees are monitored and remain. I also am saddened for all the losses, but lets celebrate our beautiful community!
Peter Paul van Dijk September 12, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Trees, like people and houses, have a lifespan, and it shortens without regular maintenance. In Reston, our trees are mainly the regrowth after the original farmland was converted to the famous planned community. The first trees to colonize open fields tend to be junipers/cedars, followed by tulip poplars. The junipers have already disappeared (shaded out by the deciduous trees following their pioneering), and many of the poplars and others are showing their age. Three points to keep in mind: 1. As a resident, keep an eye on the trees near you. If you are responsible (lot owner), engage professional help to monitor and maintain; if they are on RA or cluster property, notify RA or the cluster yourself - don't wait for someone else to maybe do it. 2. The DRB process to approve (or otherwise address) applications for tree removal must be simple, streamlined, and timely. The guidelines do not state the time period within which DRB must make a decision; at a minimum, an expected time period should be mentioned. 3. If you want a profession with job security, become an arborist in Reston :)
Keith A. September 12, 2012 at 03:10 PM
What I want to know is what can be done about trees that fall in RA areas. Unlike what the article says, the RA doesn't do anything about them. I live in a cluster SURROUNDED by RA property with old/dead trees that have fallen and landed on RA property, but are an eyesore to the cluster... A few of the trees are laying along the side of Reston Parkway (in plain view)
Judith Andersen September 12, 2012 at 03:31 PM
I live on South Shore Road, and suffered only some damage from large falling limbs. I am very lucky, because I am surrounded by enormous oaks, quite a few on my property and some on what may be Reston property, and I certainly have no cause to complain about a lack of trees. Two, however, make me anxious. They are very very close to my house, and will definitely cause extensive damage to my home should either one fall. They are both huge. I wish I could take these to down, and simply live with the other twenty or so which are on my property.
Orlina Tucker September 12, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Oh yeah....you only have to walk on the path behind Tall Oaks between the 2 North Shores to see how that RA cares for it's woodlands. As my husband loves to point out, there's another name for fallen, dead trees: kindling! It's not unusual (especially during hot, dry summers) for fires to start in the woods behind our house.
John Farrell September 12, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Ashburn, like Dulles Airport, is located on top of a prehistoric lake. The substrats are so hard that its is very hard to grow anything there. It took far more acres in Ashburn to grow enough fodder to keep a cow than around Reston or Purcellville. There are similar problem soils in Greenbriar where there are hardly any trees compared to Reston despite the two communities being of similar age.
John Farrell September 12, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Of the 21,000 dwelling unit in RA, only 4800 are single family detached homes. If every such single family lot owner took down 2 trees that were close enough to their home to threaten their families' lives (and, like me, many would chose to take the risk of the tree falling on their home), that would be less than 10,000 trees in a community of 3.5 million trees. Hardly enough to be noticed on satellite photography. I love trees. I have a life list. But I love my own species more. People have a right to be safe, and feel safe, on their own property. RA staff needs to get practical in its application of the tree removal guidelines. Too many lives are at stake for zealotry and inflexibility.


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