Post #477: A Councilmember’s proposal in response to the Wawa tree destruction

Posted on December 3, 2019

Something remarkable appears to be happening in response to the mistaken removal of mature maple trees at the Wawa lot.  A Town Council member is trying to fix the system so that this doesn’t happen again.  You can download Councilman Majdi’s proposal from this Google Drive link (.pdf)  This is a rare enough event in Town of Vienna government that it’s worth writing up for that reason alone.  And, separately, because it might actually work to prevent a repeat of what happened at the Wawa.

The back story

Post #467 lays out the back story here, with visual and audio aids.  When Wawa presented their plans for approval by the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), Wawa made it clear that they intended to protect the big trees, on Town of Vienna right-of-way, on the back of the lot.  They literally said that they didn’t want to be seen as a company that comes in and cuts down a bunch of mature trees.   They refused a request to put in a masonry wall at the back of the lot for fear it would kill those trees.  And the site plan approved by the BAR specifically called out those big trees and noted that they were to be preserved.

It was pretty gosh-darn unambiguous.  No waffles.  No maybes.  No disagreement.  And clearly called out in the approved site plan, like so (I have circled the key text in green):  Existing silver maple to remain.

And yet … down they came.  With no discussion, no warning, no nothing.  Here one day, gone the next.

Interestingly, we almost had a repeat of this the next week, as a tree crew showed up (on Thanksgiving morning?) to do something to the trees, in the public right-of-way, behind the Starbucks.  An alert neighbor called the police and got them to stop.  (I have no first-hand knowledge of any of this, but it was reported by seemingly credible sources.)

A systems failure

The Town’s initial response was to blame Wawa.  Initially, the Town’s story was that Wawa’s contractor had mistakenly removed those trees, from the right-of-way, without permission.  This is laid out in Post #467.

But the story then changed.  This is laid out in Post #469.  At that point, I had to guess which story made more sense, and it appears that I guessed correctly. Because, at some point, it came out that the Town had agreed to the removal of those trees.   Whether that only came out because there was a FOIA request, or it only came out later because the Town itself was unaware that it had given permission, I can’t say.

But in any case, in the FOIA request materials, it’s clear that the Town Arborist agreed to have those trees removed.  (Whether or not Wawa asked for that permission is not crystal clear.  But what is clear is that the Town Arborist — for some seemingly good reasons — OK’d the removal of those trees.)  Here’s the email, provided in response to a FOIA request by Shelley Ebert:


In Post #469, I tried to make the point that this was not a good-guys-versus-bad-guys issue.  This was a systems failure, a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.  The Town Arborist didn’t sit on on those BAR hearings.  He may or may not even have known that they were called out on the approved site plans.  And so he single-handedly, and without consultation, overruled the BAR.

But the important lesson moving forward is that this occurred because the Town of Vienna government is set up to allow this to occur.  Not by design — it’s not like somebody, with forethought, decided that this one guy should ideally get to overrule the entire rest of Town of Vienna government.  But by mistake — the Arborist is part of Parks and Recreation, and is effectively isolated from all the other parts of Town of Vienna government that deal with new construction in Town.

It was NOT a failure of any one individual.  It was a failure of the system.  And, in my limited experience, when something like that happens with the Town of Vienna, they just sweep it under the rug and move on.  (E.g., no procedural changes were made in response to Marco Pologate).  That’s what makes this new development so unusual.

Councilman Majdi:  So fix the system

Yesterday, Councilman Majdi set out a proposal for fixing the system.  The link to a .pdf copy of it is at the top of this posting, and I’ll repeat that link here (.pdf).

Whatever you think of the details, the gist of it it definitely right.  It’s crazy to blame Wawa’s contractor, or some random member of Town staff, when this is a problem with the system.  He goes on to give other examples of issues with the treatment of the Town’s right of way.  Things like having a Town staffer narrow a public street for benefit of a developer, with no public discussion, as occurred for 380 Maple West (e.g., Post #301).

Fact is, the Town’s treatment of the right-of-ways, particularly alleys, appears to be pretty loosey-goosey.  As in, it’s tough to see any clear rules laid out in black-and-white.  That sort of situation is an invitation for mischief and misunderstanding.  And this is a long-standing tradition in the Town, e.g., the presence of an alleyway is why the Town (incorrectly, I think) decided back in 1974 that the (future) Wawa lot did not require a masonry wall at the rear.

What does Councilman Majdi suggest doing?  I’m going to re-order his proposal here.

First, he directly addresses the issues that gave rise to the Wawa clear-cutting.  Just basic, procedural stuff to achieve communication and coordination between various parts of Town government, rather than have each piece of the government act independently.

So, If the BAR approves a site plan, and then someone wants to make a significant modification, Majdi’s proposal would require that they go back to the BAR to have the modification approved.  He would make sure that the Town Arborist is kept in the loop when plans are passed through the BAR and other Town bodies.  He would require that Town staff actually refer to what the BAR said, in its deliberations, before approving site plan modifications.  And so on.  Just basic, standard business organization principles, applied to this process.

Second, he would have the Town create standards for noise and light pollution from new commercial construction.  This is a move to protect the neighborhoods adjacent our commercial districts.  I guarantee you that anything along these lines would be welcomed in the neighborhoods adjacent to Maple Avenue.

We already have some rudimentary protections in place that may have been adequate for the type of commercial construction we had in the past.  But those rules may not be good enough for the future under, where every indication is that we’ll have a more densely used Maple Avenue with much larger buildings than at present.

Here’s an example.  Our zoning requires a 6′ masonry wall at the back of a commercial parking lot if that adjoins single-family homes.  That’s there to keep the noise of the parking lot out of the neighborhood.  But if you want to put in a two-floor parking garage — there’s nothing in the code to require that the garage have a solid back wall!  Instead, the Town has to ask for that on a case-by-case basis.  This is laid out in this post on parking garages and sound walls.

Third, he would have a review of Town policy regarding the rights-of-way.  As I read it, he would require some sort of public review before anyone alters the right of way (e.g., cutting down trees), gives up part of the right of way (as in 380 Maple West), or allows the location of (ugly) permanent fixtures directly adjacent to the right-of-way (transformers at the Chick-fil-a-car-wash).

Finally, he would have the Town’s Conservation and Sustainability Commission come up with a policies regarding tree and habitat conservation for Town property and right-of-ways.

Because, well, as it stands, unbeknownst to anyone, our policy amounts to having one guy, new to the Town staff, say, eh, those trees aren’t worth much — and down the come.  No context, no discussion, no consideration of the broader issues.  That’s the gist of what happened at Wawa.  But don’t blame the individual.  The guy was just doing his job.  If you don’t want it to happen again, fix the system.