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New Legislation Could Increase Tree Canopy

Even in cities like Richmond - known for its park system - trees are distributed unevenly. Proposed legislation would let communities decide how many trees they need. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia's cities and towns have different needs when it comes to trees, but state law applies a one-size-fits-all approach, limiting the area  localities can dedicate to replacing trees cleared for development.

Now, some lawmakers are trying to change that so localities have more flexibility, and can exceed the state requirements.

Two bills introduced by Sen. Dave Marsden and Del. Nancy Guy  would carve out exceptions in the tree replacement law for developments in formerly redlined communities and Chesapeake Bay protection areas, and those generating carbon offsets through trees.

The bills would also allow localities to exceed state tree canopy requirements in their own planning documents.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation director Peggy Sanner says increasing tree cover has many benefits. 

“We need to protect trees. We need not only to protect the trees currently on the ground, but we need to enhance tree cover in the areas where we have lost them,” she said.

In urban areas like Richmond, trees can protect against extreme heat in sections historically targeted by racist housing policies. These areas tend to have far fewer trees than the rest of the state, and have only gotten hotter as the number of dangerously hot days in Virginia rises. 

Around the bay and its tributaries, trees have additional benefits. Sanner says trees help prevent water pollution and mitigate erosion and localized flooding, both on the rise in parts of Virginia due to heavy rains in part caused by climate change.

Sanner said that cities need “the authority to use trees as they think appropriate to help mitigate the negative effects of years of redlining.”

Both of the proposed bills now carry amendments that would delay new rules taking effect until next year, with a stakeholder study to happen in the coming months. That would be led by a government agency and include community leaders, developers and environmental experts.

The bills still have a long way to go, and Sanner says there’s a lot still to be decided between stakeholders and lawmakers, and in the study. The Senate version, if passed, would actually need to be reapproved by lawmakers next year.

Several localities have spoken in support of the bills, saying they want the ability to plant more trees.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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