Arlington County Urban Forestry Frequently Asked Questions

This page can help answer questions about planning, planting, and maintenance of trees. For other issues in Arlington County, see:

Common Constituent Questions – Topics (arlingtonva.us)

Tree Maintenance and Planting on Private Property

How can trees on private property contribute to improving the health of Arlington’s tree canopy?

Can anyone remove a tree on private property without a permit?

A landowner can remove a tree on their property (Learn more here), except when: 

Who can remove trees or plants on public land? Who takes care of public trees?

  • No one is permitted to remove, damage or otherwise cause a tree or shrub on public land to decline substantially, without the permission of the County. Trees and shrubs are protected by the Tree and Shrub Ordinance
  • If you have a concern about a publicly-owned tree’s potential risk to the public or your property, submit a tree maintenance request so that staff can address the concern.  Please note trees are managed by the owner of the land they are planted on.   
  • Trees on private property are the responsibility of the landowner.  Public or private trees that affect utility lines are often addressed by the adjacent utility company. Learn about utility work on trees here.

Trees and Development

I want to provide input on development projects that may impact trees. Which projects might have opportunities for input?

  • County-led projects, such as transportation, parks and public building redevelopment, often through capital improvement funding. These projects have great opportunities for influence from the public in their planning stages. Learn about how to engage with site plans to understand the County’s outreach methods. Many current projects can be found on the Arlington County Projects page.
  • Private projects that require changes to land use or zoning policies. These are often called 4.1 Site plans, and more information can be found on the Private Development Page.
  • Arlington Public School Projects, such as new schools or major changes to schools, are often reviewed through the Public Facility Review Commission. These projects often have opportunities to receive public input throughout the planning stage. 
  • Federal projects may include things such as military base development, National Park Service improvements and changes to Arlington National Cemetery. Input on these projects often revolves around comments to Environmental Impact Statements or public input through the National Capital Planning Commission

What projects have limited opportunities for public input?

  • By-right projects follow local zoning rules, and rarely have a requirement for public input. Most of these projects that impact trees are single-family home redevelopments, additions, smaller multi-family home developments or utility projects. Projects over 2,500 square feet of land disturbance are required to meet the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance requirements, which require a certain amount of tree conservation or planting. Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance here
  • Maintenance projects include projects that maintain existing facilities, such as renovations, landscaping projects and small changes to properties. These are often exempted from most permitting requirement and rarely involve public input. 
  • Tree maintenance on public land happens when trees on County-maintained land become a high risk to life or property. International Society of Arboriculture Certified arborists assess the need for work and schedule maintenance as needed. If you have a concern about a tree on County-maintained land, one can request a tree inspection using the Report a Problem tool. The County follows International Society of Arboriculture standards for maintenance. Learn about all currently scheduled maintenance. Public input is limited, but if you have questions about a project, email urbanforestry@arlingtonva.us.

My neighbor is developing their lot. I’m concerned about the impact to trees on their lot as well as my own trees. What can I do?

If the project type allows for public input, you may be able to influence the potential impact of the project through the project’s engagement process.  A guide on how to work with a developing lot can be found here: How to Protect Your Trees When Your Neighbor is Developing Their Lot

If the project is a by-right project, the County can review a project to make sure it complies with minimum standards for tree protection and planting. Every project that disturbs more than 2,500 square feet of soil, is reviewed to abide by the regulations set out in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance.

What are the tree conservation requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance?

  • Trees must be protected to the maximum extent practical, outside of the construction footprint, including the buildings, parking areas, sidewalks and the area needed for construction. 
  • A certain percentage of tree canopy must be either conserved or planted on the project. For most projects, this is about 20% of the lot. 
  • Neighbors must be notified by certified letter of any impact and the measures used to reduce the impact to neighboring trees. This is your opportunity to speak with the developer about remediation or replacement. 

Find out more about what you can do to protect trees on these types of projects.

How can a land development project limit its impact to trees?

All development that disturbs soil and tree roots will have a negative impact on trees, either through direct removal needed to make space for the development, or the impact on a tree’s root system and soil quality. There are two major methods to reduce impact: 

  • Changing the scope (where the development is placed) and limit of disturbance of the project is often the most effective method to reduce impact to tree roots. Often conversations are easier to have about reducing the scope, the earlier in the project they begin. 
  • Alternative root protection methods can be used to reduce impact in some situations. Roots can be protected with matting; trunks can be protected with protective wraps and construction can be altered to reduce impact. Read more about tree preservation guidelines(PDF, 9MB).

How does County urban forestry staff work to reduce impacts on development projects?

  • Staff utilizes the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance in their review of the development project plans to reduce impact to trees outside of the construction footprint (the buildings, parking areas, sidewalks and the area needed for construction). This work requires expert knowledge of tree growth mechanisms and the impact of the project on the trees. 
  • Communication between County staff and the private property owner generally occurs through the online permitting system as part of the by-right permitting process. 
  • The project size defines the impact. While regulations can require limits to disturbance, the project scope ultimately defines its impact. 
  • Staff communicates the value of trees to developers to help them reshape the project to better conserve trees or provide better space for planted trees. 
  • Staff works with a developer to meet the intent of their project and maximize tree conservation.

The County is developing a project, and I am concerned about impact to trees. How can I advocate for tree conservation?

The County’s Six-Step Public Engagement Guide aims to work with engagement and communication processes across County government – for hundreds of projects both large and small. 

Recognizing there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, the guide aligns the level of public engagement needed based on the characteristics, benefits and potential impacts of each project. The six-step process highlights how engagements should be planned, implemented and assessed. Learn about the six-step process here. 

Beyond public engagement, County urban forestry staff reviews projects for impact and works with the project to minimize removal of trees. Natural Resources Management staff also reviews projects for impact. Planting plans are reviewed collectively, to avoid planting invasive plants, prioritize native plants and maximize survival chances. 

Advocacy from the public can help guide what trees or other natural resources are a priority for staff, so each project can strive to provide the greatest benefit to our natural environment. If you are concerned about the impact a project has, find the project on the Arlington County Projects page, to find the best avenue to share ideas.

Arlington Public Schools is developing a project, and I am concerned about impact to trees. How can I advocate for tree conservation?

Many school projects are developed under a County Use Permit have the opportunity for public input. The earlier the input is provided, the more likely changes can be made to the plan. Check www.apsva.us for updates on projects of concern and sign up on the project website to receive updates.  

The County’s Urban Forestry Office, the Department of Environmental Services, and Community Housing and Planning staff also reviews these projects to reduce impact to the greatest extent practical, in context of the project limitations.

A developer is proposing a project in my neighborhood that may require zoning changes or a significant change to the use of the site. They are asking for a special exception to zoning or land use rules. I am concerned about the development’s potential impact to trees. What are my options for providing input on this project?

Arlington’s Zoning Ordinance provides for a special exception site plan option within certain zoning districts under the guidance of Administrative Regulation 4.1. This allows for site-specific flexibility in development form, use and density, beyond what is otherwise permitted by following standard zoning rules. Most significant private and public projects in Arlington are developed through this Site Plan Review Process, ensuring proper reviews, public engagement and compliance with applicable policies and ordinances. Site Plan Amendments are requests to modify approved site plans (ex: amendments can permit outdoor café seating, live entertainment, dancing, etc.). Major site plan amendments are modifications to an approved site plan that meets a set of criteria. 

Those projects that request special exceptions to the County’s land use and zoning policies are carefully reviewed through a process that ensures proper analysis, public engagement and compliance with applicable policies and ordinances. You can find most projects on the Private Development website, and public meetings are posted on the Site Plan Review Committee website. These projects are often called 4.1 Site plans, Use Permits, Unified Residential Districts or Form-Based Code projects. 

These projects can have impacts to trees, and engagement early in the project can help influence the conservation or tree planting on a project. These projects are ultimately voted upon by the County Board, after public review, which is usually the final opportunity for public input.

I’m worried about whether a project is properly protecting its trees. What should I look for in proper tree protection?

Tree protection in Arlington County focuses on the protection of the tree’s roots. The roots are its structural support and lifeline for nutrients, oxygen and water. Protecting what is known as the Critical Root Zone (CRZ) is important for a tree to have a chance of survival. One can draw a rough representation of a CRZ as a circle of one foot of diameter per one inch of tree trunk. You can see a diagram of this here

To protect a tree, draw the CRZ on a plan, and protect as much as possible of this zone. This is often done with six- or four-foot chain link fencing or tree pit protection boxes (depending on the size of the project) to protect tree roots during a project. Keeping this fencing up to prevent access is critical to reduce root impact. You can see an example drawing of fencing like this here. 

Alternatively, one can protect the ground with root protection matting, which allows tree roots to be protected, but equipment to be driven over the roots. This is used where access to the site is still needed, but no grading or excavation is happening in the area. This can be a thick layer of wood chips or engineered solutions. You can see an example drawing of root matting here. 

Failure to adequately protect a tree can lead to unwanted or unpermitted tree damage. If you think a project has removed their fencing, matting or other tree protection matters before project completion, report it by emailing urbanforestry@arlingtonva.us and an inspector will check the site for compliance.

Keep in mind that some trees may be too impacted by construction, even if they are outside of the limit of disturbance and may still need to be removed due to their root impact. 

I want to influence the practices and policies surrounding trees. What opportunities do I have?

Arlington County’s Urban Forestry Office works under the guidance of the Urban Forest Master Plan, a sub-element of the County’s comprehensive plan. This plan is currently being updated, along with the Natural Resources Management Plan (Find out more about the Forestry and Natural Resources Plan here). This will allow people the opportunity to influence policy in County development, tree maintenance and planting practices. You can find out more about the current urban forest master plan here.

What defines ownership of a tree?

Property Lines and Tree Ownership

  • A tree with a vertically oriented trunk with no lean or bend that, measured at 4.5 feet from the ground level on its uphill side, crosses a property line is considered to be co-owned by the properties and all applicable management decisions and maintenance costs shall be made and shared equally.
  • For a tree with a lean or bend, the location of the trunk shall be measured at the point below where the lean or bend begins, excluding any discrete root flares that may project from the trunk.
  • A root flare is a part of a tree near its base where the trunk transitions into an individual root and is not considered part of the trunk for the purpose of determining ownership.
  • In all cases neighbors are encouraged first to try to come to a reasonable and agreeable conclusion between themselves on where the property line is and whether or not the tree is co-owned.  

Tree Maintenance on Public Property

Who is responsible for the maintenance of trees in Arlington County?

The County is responsible for the maintenance of any tree that is located on Arlington County property, including the rights-of-way of Arlington County roads.  Trees that are located on private property or are on lands owned by another government entity (such as the trees along VDOT roads) are the responsibility of that land manager. Find out which roads are VDOT Roads here.  There are also some situations in which trees that are planted in the rights-of-way by a developer remain the responsibility of that developer.  Additionally, there are some neighborhoods where a homeowner’s association may be responsible for trees in the rights-of-way, as the result of agreements made during the site approval process.  In some circumstances a tree may be right on the property line, or there may be uncertainty about the boundary between ownerships. In those cases, additional investigation or survey work may be necessary. If ownership is unclear, email urbanforestry@arlingtonva.us 

Supporting Public Trees in Arlington

Adopt-a-Tree!  Do you have street trees and access to water?  Help the County keep them well-hydrated. Learn more here.

Do you know a barren spot of public land that could use a tree or two? Let us know where trees are needed. Recommend a piece of public land that needs a tree by requesting a Tree Planting in our Report a Problem tool.

There are trees near my property that need to be trimmed or removed. I believe the trees are on County property. Who is responsible for their maintenance or removal?

Trees that are growing along the street between the curb and the sidewalk are usually in the public right-of-way and are the responsibility of the County to maintain.  You can submit a tree maintenance request so that staff can address the concern. Urban Forestry staff will be assigned to inspect the trees and determine what actions are required.

How does the County determine whether or not a tree on public property will be pruned or removed?

County arborists use tree care industry standards and their professional judgment to make determinations on a case-by-case basis regarding what type of maintenance may be appropriate for a tree, or if the tree’s removal or pruning is warranted. There are several factors that are taken into consideration including the specific conditions of the tree, its overall health, where it is located, and the potential risk of damage if a part of it fails. Obvious risks to the health and safety of our residents receive top priority. County arborists are professionally trained to evaluate those risks. Trees are not pruned or removed simply because they block a view, overhang property lines or shed leaves or fruits.

Can I prune or remove trees that are on County property at my own expense?

Not without County permission.  Residents are not permitted to prune or remove trees on County property (or plant new ones) unless the action is approved by the County, in accordance the Tree and Shrub Ordinance. Email urbanforestry@arlingtonva.us to coordinate a request for permission.

Will the County arborist inspect the trees on my property or my neighbor’s property?

No. The County’s Urban Forestry staff are not permitted to provide consulting services or to provide inspections of trees on private property.  A qualified private arborist should be engaged to provide recommendations for treatment of trees on private property. You can find a certified arborist at goodtreecare.com or asca-consultants.org

Does the County have a list of preferred or recommended arborists or tree maintenance companies?

The County does not provide recommendations for arborists or tree maintenance companies.  Selecting an arborist is like selecting a personal doctor who will advise you about the health, care, and safety of your trees.  Many reputable tree maintenance firms are listed in the yellow pages and online.  The International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association provide useful information for consumers on their websites regarding tree care and selecting an arborist.  

Regardless of how you select an arborist to assist you, be sure to you confirm that the company you are working with is properly insured by requesting a certificate of insurance before signing any contracts or allowing any work to begin.

How can it be determined if a tree is a risk and likely to fall over?

Regardless of how much care is given to maintain the health of our trees, it is impossible to ensure that they will never fail during severe weather or even on the calmest of days.  County arborists will inspect trees on County property in response to an online service request. Our Urban Forestry staff utilize all pertinent tree risk assessment techniques when evaluating the health and potential risks associated with each tree.

My neighbor’s tree overhangs my property. Who is responsible for pruning those branches?

There are no County ordinances that require your neighbor to prune the limbs that overhang your property. If your neighbor’s tree is causing damage to your property, speak to your neighbor about this damage and work to resolve the issue.  Each situation is different. Some may require professional assistance to resolve.

Can the County require me to maintain a tree or remove dead or high–risk trees on my property or my neighbor’s property?

There are no County ordinances that require a property owner to maintain the trees or remove dead trees on private property except those trees that abut or are near public property and may pose a threat to public property or rights-of-way. If you are concerned about a tree on private property that may be a threat to public property or rights-of-way, contact Code Enforcement.

If a tree is on a property line, shared with the County, and it needs to be removed, what will the County provide?

While the County will prune and otherwise maintain limbs overhanging public land from a shared-property tree, removal of that tree will have a shared cost. The County will prepare an estimate of the cost of removal, and cost is shared equally, with each owner paying an equal share. For example, if the tree is on two properties, including the County, this will be 50% for the private owner, and 50% for the County. Three properties, including the County, it will be shared 1/3 between each owner.

How does the Urban Forestry Office respond to storm damage and other emergencies?

In addition to responding to routine service requests by residents, the Urban Forestry Office is also one of the County’s primary emergency response groups. Major storm events often cause significant tree damage. Our storm responses are coordinated with the Department of Environmental Services, other County departments and private contractors. Additionally, Urban Forestry staff regularly responds to after-hours emergency calls of downed trees or fallen limbs blocking roads.

 

Facts about forestry and tree-related programs in Arlington County 

Statistics 

Overall tree canopy percentage (not including Airport and Department of Defense land): 

2008 2011 2016
43 40 41

Source: Arlington Tree Canopy

Forest composition (as of 2016)

775,400 trees total (private and public)
$1.41 Billion total value
$7 Million of benefits every year
Over 120 species
Most common tree: Flowering Dogwood
Most dominant tree by canopy cover: Tulip tree 

Source: Arlington Eco Study

Tree maintenance

County tree maintenance crew maintain 19,000 street trees and over 100,000 park trees. We work on a request basis, and do not currently have funding for a regular pruning cycle for our street trees. Our unit reacts to emergency situations, such as hurricanes, derechos, ice and snowstorms, to keep the streets clear and safe for the community. 

While we do not have a formal tree health component in our program, we do also treat some of our champion and high risk ash trees for Emerald Ash Borer, and have treated elm trees, where needed, for Dutch Elm Disease. 

For high-risk tree situations on public land, the public can use this link for requests.

Tree planting

Arlington County plants an average of 900 trees per year, along streets, in parks, and other county-owned property. Along streets, we only plant in planting strips four feet or wider, without major utility conflicts. We avoid planting large canopy trees underneath utility lines. We focus on planting trees native to this region, such as our native oaks and sycamores, with an eye on climate change, avoiding species which may not survive future climate impacts to the area. Culturally relevant species, such as ornamental cherries and ginkgos are also part of our palette, where appropriate, outside of natural areas. Our trees are typically watered for two years by our in-house staff, and residents interested in helping out can reach out to urbanforestry@arlingtonva.us for more information. 

The County also supports EcoAction Arlington’s private tree planting program, which uses developer funding to plant trees on residents’ properties. Typically, two times a year, a planting review through the Tree Canopy Fund occurs, and awards residents with tree plantings of native large canopy trees on their property. Once a year, the tree distribution program allows residents to pick up smaller tree species. 

For more information, use this link.

Plan review

A significant component of our program concerns the review of development plans for the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance, which requires a certain percentage of trees to be conserved and/or planted on developments. These reviews range from individual single-family homes, to large office buildings, schools, parks, road projects, and federal projects in the County. We review for proper conservation of trees, where possible, ensure planting is performed appropriately, and follow through to the final inspection of the project, for compliance. Our unit also provides as-needed advice to all other departments in the County on tree conservation and planting. 

For more information, see use this link.

Outreach

While not explicitly funded for outreach, we do help spread the word on our projects, and associated programs, such as the tree canopy fund, through direct mail, ads in local news, Facebook, teaching Tree Stewards and Arlington Regional Master Naturalists, list serves, champion tree bike rides, local tv interviews, and blog posts, among others. You can find some of these here: 

Facebook

Trees

Specimen trees (protected by law) 

There are 24 trees protected, 16 on private property and eight on public property.

Collaborating organizations

We would not be able to do as much good without the help of the following organizations, and their passionate volunteers: 

Forestry and Natural Resources Commission (FNRC)

Tree Stewards

Arlington Regional Master Naturalists 

Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia

Arlington Tree Action Group