Urban Forestry Management
The Urban Forestry Section of the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities is responsible for the management of the urban forest on public lands within the City of Alexandria, as well as working with other landowners to plant trees and increase tree canopy cover on private property. There are approximately 20,000 street trees in Alexandria, as well as many thousands more in parks and on the grounds of public facilities (libraries, museums, administrative buildings, and schools). Urban Forest management activities include tree pruning, removal of diseased or dead trees, and planting new or replacement trees.
Tree Canopy Assessment
To align itself with current best practices and establish a rigorous baseline from which to measure canopy change, Alexandria Urban Forestry partnered with the Spatial Analysis Laboratory at the University of Vermont to run a canopy assessment using established procedures developed in conjunction with the USDA Forest Service. This approach has been used by Seattle, New York City and Chicago nationally and Fairfax County regionally.
This new canopy change assessment, which covers years 2014 to 2018, leveraged Canopy cover is the percentage of land area in a city with a tree leaf or branch overhead. It is a key metric in urban forest management because it correlates highly with the two most critical tree ecosystem services of heat island reduction and stormwater interception. Managers use canopy cover metrics to understand the extent and distribution of their tree canopy, pursue strategic goals, and ensure equity in service provision.
Canopy cover is measured in a canopy cover assessment. Assessments can measure urban tree canopy using various methods each with corresponding degrees of accuracy. Most approaches involve aerial imagery or imagery and LiDAR. The quality and accuracy of canopy assessments varies widely based on the methodology and data employed. It is up to each manager to determine what level of accuracy is required before a canopy assessment in considered defensible and actionable.
The field of canopy assessment has matured since Alexandria conducted its first assessment in 2001. New, standardized industry best practices have emerged from partnerships between the USDA Forest Service, academia, and municipalities. When applied consistently, these new practices allow for comparison of assessments over time and benchmarking with regional and national peer cities.
LiDAR and aerial imaging captured by regional partners to generate a high-quality dataset at greatly reduced cost. It provides a new benchmark, and more importantly, establishes industry standard procedures to replicate assessments going forward.
According to this assessment, Alexandria’s tree canopy increased to 32.5% in 2018. The report noted a 22.4% increase from 2014 data, with the caveat that some of that canopy gain was likely spread out over a longer period than the four-year timeframe indicated. (See page 11 for more details.)
Maintenance and Planting of Trees on Public Lands
Residents may request tree maintenance, report a problem or ask for information about urban forest management on City property by submitting a 311 service request. Following submittal of a Service Request, an Urban Forester will investigate the request within 10 business days. The following time frames apply under normal circumstances:
- Tree Inspections (Trimming & Removal) – 90 business days
- Tree Planting – 240 business days
- Tree Storm Damage - 15 business days
Depending upon the type of work required and the current seasonal backlog, the length of time to complete the task(s) associated with a Work Order will vary. In particular, summer wind/rain storms and winter snow/ice events generate large amounts of tree-related debris removal and pruning activity that may require us to delay completion of other scheduled work.
In some instances, Service Requests may need to be coordinated with other agencies potentially delaying the resolution date. Anyone who submits a Service Request may check on the status of the ticket or review any Comments that may have been entered for it by looking up the case number in 311.
Notable Trees of Alexandria
Trees are most often recognized for their environmental benefit to the community. They help maintain clean air and water, reduce soil erosion, and can even lower the cost of energy for residential heating and cooling. The mere presence of trees can also make us feel better about living in the city, bring beauty to an otherwise stark setting, and enhance the value of your property. The Notable Tree Program is designed to recognize, preserve and honor the most noteworthy specimens of trees and shrubs growing in Alexandria. Specimens of exceptional size or age, historical connection or ecological importance will be documented and be eligible to be placed on the register of Notable Trees. The Register of Notable Trees is a public document that can be shared and enjoyed by all. In honoring these special trees, we honor not only the past, but also the present and the future. Our hope is that by sharing this information, all residents of the City will better understand the community's stewardship role in preserving both our environment and natural history.
Participate! If you or your neighbor has an outstanding tree or shrub that you think would qualify for inclusion on the register, nominate it. Or if you know of an outstanding specimen on public property - you may nominate it as well. Nominations that are accepted will receive an honorary certificate and be listed on the public register. Having your private tree listed does not take away any of your personal property rights, but we do hope it would inspire you to take good care of it.
What are the criteria for a Notable Tree? To be considered noteworthy for listing, a specimen must be of exceptional size for its species, be an old-age specimen with a known historical connection (person, place or event), or have ecological importance as a locally-rare native species. Generally, only native species are accepted for nomination (see nomination form for exceptions). Some Notable Trees may also qualify as a City, State or even National Champion. If nomination is based on size, the tree or shrub will be officially measured by City staff or qualified volunteer using the standards designed by American Forests. All of Alexandria's current state champion trees are listed on the register of the Virginia Big Tree Program.
Where can I find noteworthy trees in the City? The City of Alexandria was once a natural wonder - from rich river floodplains and swamps to virgin bottomland hardwood forest and tidal marsh. In the past 150 years, urban development and population growth has taken its toll in the form of buildings, parking lots and roadways. Fast forward to the present day - remaining natural forests are confined to small woodlot-sized parcels or long and narrow stream valleys. Most of our large and historically important trees are now gone. But if you know where to look, in wooded nooks and crannies, or sometimes hidden in plain view in a front or back yard, they are still out there waiting to be discovered and honored.
The best places search for big trees are along river and stream banks, in cemeteries, church yards, historic properties, and Civil War sites. Good hunting!
In conjunction with the Register of Notable Trees mentioned above, this Map of Alexandria's Champion Trees provides a visualization to that data. It pinpoints the tree’s location using GPS coordinates, provides measurements, estimated ages, and details a bit of historical or cultural significance about our City's champion trees.
Please note: some of these trees are on private property.
City Tree Planting
If a City-owned tree is removed from the street in front of your home, the City will replant that tree at no cost to you. At the time a tree is removed, a City Urban Forester will identify the appropriate tree for the site and the tree will be scheduled for planting.
If a resident would like to request a tree be planted on City-owned land in front of your home, a City Urban Forester will inspect the site and determine the appropriate tree for planting at no cost to you.
To request a site inspection, submit a tree planting 311 service request. The City's tree planting program occur seasonally, weather permitting.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is responsible for the maintenance of trees in the City of Alexandria?
ANSWER: The City is responsible for the maintenance of any tree that is located on City of Alexandria-owned property, including the rights-of-way of roads. Trees that are located on private property or are on lands owned by another government entity are the responsibility of that landowner. 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 homeowners 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.
There are trees near my property that need to be trimmed or removed. I believe the trees are on City property. Who is responsible for their maintenance or removal?
ANSWER: 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 City to maintain. You can report a tree that you believe requires attention by submitting a Service Request to the Urban Forestry Section of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities by submitting a 311 service request.
Urban Forestry staff will be assigned to inspect the trees and determine what actions are required. A copy of the Service Request which identifies the work to be done, if any, will be left at the address that is provided.
How does the City determine whether or not a tree on public property will be pruned or removed?
ANSWER: City Arborists utilize 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 is warranted. There are a number of factors which 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 it fails. Generally speaking, obvious risks to the health and safety of our residents receive top priority. City Arborists are professionally trained to evaluate those risks and to determine the true condition of each tree. Trees are not pruned or removed simply because they block a view, overhang property lines, or shed leaves or fruits. The Arborist staff can provide information about any tree maintenance decision.
Can I prune or remove trees that are on City property at my own expense?
ANSWER: No. Residents are not permitted to prune or remove trees on City property (or plant new ones) unless the action is approved by the City, in accordance with Sec. 6-2-2 of the City Code. Penalties under the Code for violations include a fine not to exceed $500 or imprisonment for up to six (6) months, or both. If the Urban Forestry staff determines that a tree does not qualify for removal, the City will not permit a resident to remove the tree at their expense.
Will the City Arborist inspect the trees on my property or my neighbor’s property?
ANSWER: No. The City’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.
Does the City have a list of preferred or recommended arborists or tree maintenance companies?
ANSWER: The City 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, we strongly recommend that 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.
I just received a copy of a Service Request that indicates the City is going to prune/trim the tree in front of my residence. What can I expect to be done?
ANSWER: Tree trimming or pruning is completed in compliance with the American National Standards Institute Z-133 and A300 Standards for Safety and Tree Maintenance Operations, and best management practices adopted by the International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association. Tree trimming includes Crown Cleaning, the removal of deadwood, crossing over or rubbing branches, and the correction of weak branch connections. In addition, low limbs that interfere with pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and branches that interfere with buildings, roofs or other structures will be removed or cut back. Dead branches less than an inch in diameter may not be removed.
Trimming does not include the removal or cutting back of all limbs that overhang private property, or topping trees to drastically reduce their height.
Information about the proper maintenance of trees can be found at: treesaregood.org.
I just received a copy of a Service Request that indicates the City is going to remove the tree in front of my residence. What can I expect to be done?
ANSWER: Tree removal is completed in compliance with the American National Standards Institute Z-133 and A300 Standards for Safety and Tree Maintenance Operations, and best management practices adopted by the International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association. Tree removal is generally completed in two or three steps. Prior to the work being done, it may be necessary to post “NO PARKING” signs on or adjacent to the tree to provide adequate room to perform the work safely as well as the required equipment. In some cases “NO PARKING” signs will be posted on both sides of a street. The signs will be posted a day or two before the work is to be completed and may apply to one or two days to complete the first stage of the work. During the first stage, all branches and brush will be removed and chipped; if necessary, logs and branches that are too large to be chipped will be left on site until they can be removed by special equipment. In some case the trunk of a tree may be left standing until the equipment is available to remove the wood immediately upon felling. Firewood is not left at the site.
The stump that is left will be ground out as a separate operation. Before grinding the stump, all underground utilities must be marked by the utility locator service. It may be necessary to again post “NO PARKING” prior to the work being completed. Once the stump removal is completed, soil and organic material from the grinding process are used to fill the hole and level the area. The area is not covered with additional topsoil or seeded. Depending upon the particular situation and the desire of the adjacent property owner, a new tree may be planted to replace the one that was removed.
How can it be determined if a tree is a hazard and likely to fall over?
ANSWER: Regardless of how much care is given to maintain the health of our trees, it is impossible to insure that they will never fail during severe weather or even on the calmest of days. City Arborists will inspect trees on City property in response to Service Requests submitted online, and as part of our ongoing periodic inventory of City trees. A tree risk assessment may even include drilling into the buttress roots and tree trunks to probe for the presence of decay. Our Urban Forestry Section 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?
ANSWER: There are no City ordinances that require your neighbor to prune the limbs that overhang your property. You have the right to prune or cut back limbs that overhang your property to the property line at your own expense, provided that the work that is done does not damage the health of the tree or create a hazard. If your neighbor’s tree is causing damage to your property, they may be liable for the damages or for taking corrective action to avoid further impacts. Each of these situations is different; we recommend that you contact your homeowner’s insurance company or seek legal advice.
Can the City require me to maintain the trees or remove dead trees on my property or my neighbor’s property?
ANSWER: There are no City 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 under City Code section 6-2-21, et. seq. The Urban Forestry section does not provide legal advice or guidance. Please seek professional advice if you have questions about your liability for your trees.
How does the Urban Forestry Section respond to storm damage and other emergencies?
ANSWER: In addition to responding to routine Service Requests by residents, the Urban Forestry Section is also one of the City’s primary emergency response groups. Major storm events often cause significant tree damage. Following the June 2012 derecho, for example, our regular work plan was set back by approximately 30 days due to the diversion of resources to immediate and long-term storm debris cleanup. Our storm responses are coordinated with the Dept. of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES), other City Departments, and private contractors. The City’s Solid Waste Division issues guidelines about their requirements for removal of tree limbs and other debris that are either from storm damage or normal conditions. Additionally, Urban Forestry staff regularly responds to after-hours emergency calls of downed trees or fallen limbs blocking roads.
A tree is damaging a public sidewalk. What can be done about that?
ANSWER: In cases where a sidewalk, curb, or street is being damaged by a tree or its roots, a Service Request should be submitted to the Dept. of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES) rather than the Urban Forestry Section. T&ES staff will investigate to determine what needs to be done to correct the sidewalk/road problem, which may or may not involve removal of the tree. T&ES will coordinate with Urban Forestry if tree maintenance or removal is necessary.
Is my HOA responsible for the trees on our private streets?
ANSWER: In some neighborhoods the streets and rights-of-way are privately-maintained. In these cases, the care and maintenance of the trees along the streets may be the responsibility of a homeowners association or the developer. If you have questions about this, the City Arborist can assist with confirming ownership and responsibility.
I have a lot of brush, branches and wood from a tree that fell in my backyard. Will the City dispose of it for me?
ANSWER: The Resource Recovery Division of the Dept. of Transportation & Environmental Services (T&ES) will collect and dispose of yard waste, including grass clippings, leaves, branches, and logs. Yard waste is collected separately from household trash, and a special pickup must be arranged for larger items. There are restrictions that apply to the type and size of the material, how it is to be prepared, and where it can be placed for pickup. More information about the City’s yard waste disposal program can be found at: alexandriava.gov/YardWaste, or by calling 311 or 703.746.4311.
Can I make a donation to support the City's tree canopy goals?
ANSWER: Yes! You can financially support tree planting by making a donation to The Living Landscape Fund. The Living Landscape Fund is a mechanism for donating trees on public property for the enjoyment and benefit of all. Your donation will help Alexandria reach its tree canopy goal of 40% by 2035.
Additional Sources of Information
If you observe a tree or limb that may be considered a safety hazard to the public, call 911. The City will dispatch appropriate staff to inspect and take necessary action. Non emergencies may be provided by submitting a 311 service request.