Charlottesville officials briefed on state of urban forest

Former Charlottesville Mayor Elizabeth “Bitsy” Waters speaks for the trees.  Officially.

Chairwoman of the city’s tree commission, Waters gave the first “State of the Forest” report to the City Council earlier this week.

“We continue to face major challenges in our community in terms of protection of our tree canopy and managing all of our natural resources in environmentally and economically sound ways,” Waters said.  

“Specific concerns of the commission include the ongoing loss of trees and green space as our urban density increases and a tendency to view trees as an amenity rather than as a critical part of our green infrastructure,” Waters said.  

Chris Gensic, the city’s park and trail planner, told the council about efforts to protect, enhance and expand the city’s tree canopy. Even goats have been enlisted to clear choking vegetation.

“The area city staff has been focused on is the removal of invasive plants, particularly the vines that are threatening to wipe out a lot of our trees,” Gensic said about canopy enhancement projects. “We did hire the goats last year to come out at Pen Park.”

Gensic said the goats were happy when they finished the job. Other vines are tackled by city staff and volunteers because they have been growing since pastures long ago became residential developments.

“Because a lot of trees and vines started growing at the same time — when the cows left — we have some vines pretty high up in some pretty big trees,” Gensic added.

The 12-member tree commission was created in late 2010 to advise the City Council on the city’s urban forests. It is charged with studying city trees, educating the public, developing street tree recommendations and assisting with implementation of the city’s 2009 Urban Forest Management Plan.

While invasive trees are being eliminated on city-owned land, they are not always replaced with native varieties.

“There are some strong advocates for native species under all circumstances,” Waters said in an interview. “There is some debate as to whether these are always the hardiest species in urban conditions. We certainly don’t want invasives, but some that are not native, like Ginkos and others, do really well.”

According to the city’s performance management system, the Parks and Recreation Department has one of the only measureable goals related to urban forests. It set a goal of planting 100 trees a year, and over the past four years, an average of 182 trees have been planted per year.

The commission is also drafting an ordinance seeking to protect existing “heritage trees” — those that have notable historic or cultural significance. Waters said the designation will require the consent of the property owners.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she supports including urban forest goals throughout the new Comprehensive Plan, which will approved later this year.

“It’s easy to lose track of things that don’t speak for themselves, that don’t make money and that don’t pay taxes,” Szakos said. “If we are really serious about making sure we stay a ‘green city,’ then we have to institutionalize that.”

Status of tree planting in Charlottesville by Parks & Rec Dept.

A 2008 aerial photo analysis showed the city had 46 percent canopy coverage. The current draft of the Comprehensive Plan recommends increasing the tree canopy further, achieving 50 percent coverage in suburban areas. Urban areas would be targeted at 25 percent canopy while central business areas would have a 15 percent target.

Councilor Kathy Galvin asked the city manager, Maurice Jones, to investigate why street trees were not included in the plans for an extended Water Street along the new City Walk development, which is currently under construction.

Waters said City Walk is example of where multiple city departments need to work together if the city wants to be a leader in planting and protecting street trees.

“If there’s to be sidewalks and bikeways, surely there should be some trees,” Waters said. “We want this to be so much part of the culture that we are all together looking at these things.”