Post #469: Wawa again. Baloney, bureaucracy, bamboo

Posted on November 25, 2019

This is a followup to the last two posts, on the removal of some mature maple trees from the Town right-of-way behind the new Wawa.  The point of this post is to:

  • Try to be clear about what actually happened.
  • Find the root cause of this poor decision, and fix the Town’s decision-making process to reduce the chance that this occurs again, and
  • Determine what the best “fix” is for the clear-cut strip of Town land.

But my main point is that if you start of by fuzzying-up how this actually occurred, you can’t even get started on that process.  Instead, if somebody serves up a bunch of baloney, you have to start off by calling it that.  And so the three sections of this post are:


When people dissemble or are wrong on the facts, you have to make a judgment call as to who (if anyone) is telling the straight story.  In this case, I believe Wawa’s story as to how this all came about, and not the Town of Vienna.

I have been informed that Wawa has now issued its own press release that contradicts what the Town had previous said.  Color me unsurprised.  They claim they had permission from the Town to remove those trees.  The Town, by contrast, blamed this in a mistake by Wawa’s contractor, and that no permission was given.

I’ve talked to individuals familiar with construction in Vienna and I think Wawa’s description holds water, and the Town’s does not.  In all likelihood, Wawa had permission from the Town to clear-cut that right-of-way.  And the Town’s initial explanation was baloney.

I should also note that the Town has been FOIA’ed over this.  So if there is a definitive paper trail , it should eventually be made public.

The upshot is that I’m going to write this next section under the assumption that I have guessed correctly, as to who was telling the truth and who was fuzzying-up the issue.  So take that as a major caveat.

Separately, I’m going to stick with my previous estimate that these trees were perhaps 55 years old.  Just slightly older than the building that is being renovated.  I state that based on the formula that I used in the just-prior post (after adjusting stump diameter to diameter-breast-height, and using the much smaller growth factor applicable (of 1.5 years per inch of diameter-breast-height) for open-grown maple trees, versus 3 years per inch for forest-grown maples).

I’m also sticking with that for two other reasons.  First, a 100-year-old urban silver maple would be extremely rare.  Typical maximum urban lifespan is given by most sources at 80 to 100 years, with average lifespan less than that.  In my prior neighborhood (Moorefield Road), at the 60-year mark, by eye, two-thirds of the original landscaping silver maples have died.  A 100-year-old urban (non-forest) silver maple would be a specimen tree, and I doubt that the Town arborist would have cavalierly allowed such a tree to be cut down (see below).

Edit:  And now, also, see Post #470.  Pretty sure that’s definitive.

If this is an issue, surely we can sand the stump and count the rings.  But I don’t think it’s that big a deal, either way.  Those were healthy, mature trees.  Exactly how old is not hugely relevant.


In situations like this, we all want somebody to blame.  We want melodrama, when life is more often tragedy:  No bad people, only bad situations.   My feeling is, this was a systems failure.  It revealed a structural flaw in how the Town government is organized. 

It’s nowhere near as satisfying to blame an organizational flaw, compared to hanging an individual in effigy.  But,  best guess, that’s the root cause here.  And so the real question moving forward is whether the Town is going to do anything to fix that.  So let me lay out what I think the organizational issues are.

Classic business no-nos:  At least some part of the problem here is set of classic mistakes in how the Town is set up to do business in this area.  The first is “scope of authority does not match scope of responsibility”, and the second goes under the term “failure to align incentives“.

Who is responsible for those trees?  The trees were in a Town right-of-way (for an alleyway between the commercial property and the adjacent residential property).  Those trees fall under the jurisdiction of … Parks and Recreation?  Yep.  The Town arborist is responsible, and that position is under Parks and Recreation.

Issue 1:  Scope of authority does not match scope of responsibility. Responsibility for landscaping lies with the Board of Architectural Review (BAR)  The BAR approves the landscaping plan for new construction or exterior renovation, and we trust them to ensure that the landscaping is up to Town standards.  But the authority to cut down trees in the public right-of-way rests with the Town arborist.

And that’s an issue.  The Town arborist does not even attend the BAR meetings where the landscape plans are discussed.  Plausibly, he never heard the discussion around those mature Maple trees at the BAR meetings, never heard how important it seemed to be to retain those trees on the lot.  There’s no reason for the Town arborist to have been even mildly aware of the background, or even of the approved landscape plan.  There is no requirement that the arborist even bother to check back in with the BAR before, in effect, nullifying the approved landscaping plan.

That’s a classic business organization mistake.  The entity with authority over the landscaping in the public right-of-way (the Town arborist) is completely isolated from the entity with the responsibility ensure that the landscaping is up to Town standards (the BAR).   And, unsurprisingly, the most likely explanation of how we ended up here is that the arborist effectively overrrode the BAR’s approved landscaping plan, without bothering to consult the BAR.

Looking forward, is the Town just going to shrug that off, or are they at least going to change the administrative procedures so that those two Town entities have to talk to one another?    In other contexts, I have pointed out where the lack of communication between Planning Commission and Town Council has made our Town government appear irrational in its decision-making (Post #301).  This, I think, is another instance of that.  The Town held those mature trees to be of significant value (BAR), and then the Town (likely) gave permission for them to be cut down (arborist).

2:  Failure to align incentives.  A second issue is whether the incentives of the Town arborist aligned with the incentives of our Town elected officials.  In this case, I think it’s fairly clear that they did not.

The reason given for removing the trees now — at the developer’s expense — is that they were likely to be killed by the construction anyway.  While I have my doubts about that, the question is, who would pay to remove those trees if they did die later?  The answer is, the Town of Vienna would pay for it, and likely that money would come out of the budget of the Town arborist.

In addition, I believe that silver maples are frowned upon, now, as landscaping trees.  They are really not the tree of choice for (e.g.) screening one property from another.  In this situation, if they were starting from scratch, I doubt that they would even consider silver maples.  They are not considered valuable trees in the modern landscape.

Finally, I think we have to consider that an arborist has to have a dispassionate attitude toward tree removal.  In that aspect, the Town arborist is no different from say, a funeral home director.  Grief is a force to be reckoned with, but doing the job requires an ability to shrug off other’s deepest emotions about the death of living things.

By contrast, our elected officials serve at the whim of a fickle electorate.  And, let’s face it, to some degree, the electorate is ruled by emotion.  Anger is a great motivator.  And so, it’s what people think about a situation that matters.  The dollars and cents, the landscape value, the true age, all pale in comparison to the anger that people feel about the destruction of mature trees, and the shabby treatment of the folks living in the house adjacent to this property.

And so the arborist’s incentives are completely at odds with the nominal Town leadership (i.e., Town Council).  The arborist has a professional obligation to ignore others’ emotional attachment to trees, to value them in the context of modern landscaping standards, and to consider the budgetary impacts if these trees should die subsequent to construction.  By contrast, Town Council is first and foremost concerned with citizen’s emotional reaction to the destruction of the trees and to citizen’s empathy with the neighbor’s situation.

In a situation like this, the Town Council needs an opportunity to get the arborist to see it their way.  At least require that the arborist consult with them first.  So that where incentives are mis-aligned, and so the “right” decision in the arborist’s view differs from the “right” decision in Town Council’s view, they at least chat about it before revving up the chainsaws.



Nobody else involved can say this, so I feel that I need to:  This is a situation that cries out for planting the land in question with a stand of bamboo.  I get that everybody hates bamboo.  I have it in my yard, and I hate it too.  But this is a place where it might just be the most functional solution.  No professional landscaper would be willing to say that, and the Town/Wawa are currently fixated on replacing trees with trees, and so cannot say that.

In particular, I will note (via Post #453) that closely-grown bamboo can be an effective noise barrier (.pdf), when grown in stands that are 6 meters (20 feet) thick.  Here, the right-of-way is about 15 feet wide.  So planting that to bamboo would have three distinct advantages over traditional landscaping.

One, rapid growth.  You would be hard-pressed to find a woody plant that grows faster than bamboo.

Two, noise abatement.  While evergreen plantings can block sight, they do almost nothing to block sound.  Of all the planting references that I found for Post #453 the only bamboo (in a closely-grown 20′ deep stand) was shown to result in significant noise reduction.

Three, not an attractive nuisance.  One concern that the neighbors have is that the Town right-of-way (for an unused alleyway) will become an attractive nuisance once it is fenced on both sides (at the neighbor’s property line and the Wawa property line).  Apparently that has been an issue with parts of the same alleway further back into the neighborhood — it becomes an area for high school students to party.  A properly-grown stand of bamboo will not leave enough space for a person to sit comfortably, let along for a group of students to party.  It’ll fill the space, and in so doing, prevent it from being used as an outdoor party area.

Bamboo has a reputation for spreading uncontrollably, and being difficult to contain.  I have found quite the opposite, at least for the species that grows on my lot line.  Every year, it takes me about 10 minutes to beat back the bamboo at my lot line.  But I have to be sure to do it, every year.   The trick is to find the shoots when they are just emerging, and break them off when they are still soft (under 3′ tall, say).  Do that, and there’s no bamboo in the yard.  Forget to do that, and the next thing I know, I have a forest of 2″ diameter bamboo poles in my yard.  So I’ve made my peace with the neighbor’s bamboo.  I suspect that the parties involved here could do that as well.