Letters to School Board — Save the tree grove at Reed School!

September 17, 2019

Dear Chair Talento and members of the School Board:

These comments are a follow up to those sent to you on 9-5-19 (below). Please review and add them to the public record for the meeting on September 19, 2019. Thank you.

Arlington’s stormwater management system was designed for another era, when impervious surfaces didn’t cover 45%+ of the county’s land surfaces. The limitations of this system were made clear by July 8th’s catastrophic flood, which was particularly acute in the commercial area next to Reed School. This event should have been a wake-up call to all concerned, a warning that business as usual cannot continue.

On July 8, we were lucky that no one died. Since then I’ve learned very close calls: one person nearly drowned in a basement, another was knocked down and trapped under a floating/moving section of asphalt. Next time, we may very well see fatalities.

Even if it were technically feasible, Arlington simply cannot afford to expand the stormwater system to meet ongoing increases in runoff. We all must do our part to prevent additional runoff from being generated, including APS. Unfortunately APS has a long history of cutting hundreds of trees in recent years on multiple APS sites.

I continue to hear specious claims that “replacement” trees are somehow equivalent to the loss of 70- to 100-year old trees (one is on private property) — a direct result of the excessive land disturbance featured in the landscaping proposal and layout of outdoor site elements.

According to the National Tree Benefits Calculator, a 45-inch* silver maple will intercept 15,730 gallons of stormwater runoff this year.

*[Note: 45 inches was the largest diameter size that can be input into this calculator; a 54-inch tree would intercept exponentially more runoff.]

A 42-inch red maple will intercept 17,128 gallons of stormwater runoff this year. That’s a total of over 33,000 gallons of added stormwater runoff potential just from two trees.

To put these numbers in context, the average in-ground, backyard swimming pool holds between 18,000 and 20,000 gallons of water: https://www.reference.com/home-garden/many-gallons-pool-f705582183cb0362.

Below are USDA/Forest Service figures showing the annual rainfall interception (in gallons) of a red maple, as it grows, in 5-year increments for 40 years:

Red Maple
Year/Age Gallons of Rainfall Intercepted
5 185 gallons per year
10 793 gallons per year
15 1,784 gallons per year
20 3,067 gallons per year
25 4,854 gallons per year
30 6,788 gallons per year
35 9,177 gallons per year
40 11,577 gallons per year
Source: USDA, Forest Service — Piedmont Community Tree Guide: Benefits, Costs, and Strategic planting https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr200/psw_gtr200.pdf

Even if they all were to survive, it would be impossible for APS to plant enough saplings (or even 4-inch caliper trees) on this site to to provide an equivalent stormwater offset to the gigantic trees that will be lost.

The simple fact is that APS doesn’t have adequate resources in its maintenance budget to properly maintain young, newly planted trees. Below is a quote from an 11-14-18 email from APS Maintenance Director Jim Miekle:

The new “landscaping” (not exclusive to trees) funds were placed in Maintenance Operational budget the last two years under object code 43565 “Consultancy Services” at a value of $150,000. In practice the fund is used much more for actual landscaping maintenance and improvement work as opposed to

Following the Wakefield experience much more robust warranties and initial 1-2 year tree watering plans are being included as all new buildings come on line. Next summer APS’ is also introducing a systematic watering plan for all new/young trees on existing sites.

In the past we have had many PTA landscaping projects which have been wonderful initially but deteriorated badly when key parental participants move on. We are therefore trying to simplify plantings wherever possible for the sake of more manageable ongoing long term maintenance. The volume of old
trees on our property and our weather pattern (especially this year) has taken large bites from our budget just keeping things safe….

Our budgets always have multiple competing interests and the year ahead looks particularly challenging in that respect. We will continue to try to maximize whatever funds/resources we can acquire for this subject area.

The notion that watering newly planted trees for one to two years will suffice is laughably naive — to put the best possible spin on it. Even mature trees must be watered during periods of high heat and/or drought, which frequently occur in urbanized areas like ours: https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/fnr/fnr-483-w.pdf

I and others have photos of dead and dying “replacement” (as well as more mature trees) at Ashlawn, McKinley, Abingdon, Key, and Wakefield, among others. Let me know if people should send them to you. The row of trees on Patrick Henry Drive at Swanson has been replaced so many times in the past 20 years that I’ve lost count.

So despite all the expensive man-made infrastructure (which we saw fail miserably on the Ashlawn Elementary School site) to remedy the damage, more runoff will flow from the Reed School site and exacerbate Westover’s existing stormwater problem: https://hpok.org/2019/08/24/four-civic-associations-joint-letter-on-flooding-and-storm-water/.

Likewise, the EPA actively discourages excavating a hillside or steep slope due to the real risks of erosion, runoff and landslides: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/bbfs9slopes_0.pdf.   Removing trees on or near the slope further increases the chance of the ground’s becoming unstable and hazardous.

As stakeholders suggested at last night’s public meeting, APS should, instead, always be looking for less expensive design alternatives that harness nature’s power, rather than destroying it and requiring expensive remedies or mitigation to replace what was lost.

Unfortunately, Arlington’s project review processes (both school and county) are always heavily biased in favor of the destruction of natural infrastructure. As was the case at last night’s meeting, even legitimate concerns and suggestions by residents with appropriate professional expertise or experience are swept aside.

The outcome of the Reed process looks almost identical to the process for the Ashlawn addition, just a few years ago. Given that APS is replicating the removal of trees and significantly excavating a slope near a stream (Torreyson Run now flows underneath the Reed site), as was the case at Ashlawn (Reeves and Four Mile Runs), it appears that APS is poised to engineer yet another environmental disaster.

In case you have forgotten the ongoing flooding and erosion problems on the Ashlawn Elementary School site, where nearly 100 trees were cut down and a hillside was excavated and graded, I have attached a pictorial chronology (2014–2017) of the runoff, erosion and flooding that has dogged this site. And the problem, though better, is still not fixed. See below a photo taken on 7-8-19 at Ashlawn:

Flooding next to homes adjacent to Ashlawn Elementary School 7-8-19

Flooding next to homes adjacent to Ashlawn Elementary School 7-8-19

If things have truly changed at APS, then you have an opportunity to prove it. (I’d love to be wrong.) Acknowledge that you have a responsibility to Westover and the larger community by modifying the plans for the landscaping and layout of the outdoor elements to significantly reduce the excavation of the slope next to the school, to reduce the impervious surfaces being added (a 6% increase is large amount in terms of square feet for a site that size) and to save as many of the mature trees on or near the hill/slope as possible.

Many people offered sound suggestions at last night’s meeting. And there is alternate space for the geothermal cells on the site that would be far less environmentally damaging than the site currently proposed.

Perhaps some may think that the increased flood risk — along with the risk of loss of human life and businesses in Westover — is an acceptable trade-off in exchange for a so-called “net zero” building under the current plan. I do not. And I hope that members of the School Board will agree that APS has a responsibility to the larger community to avoid compounding an already serious flood hazard.

Suzanne Smith Sundburg

Arlington, Va.


September 5, 2019
Dear Chair Talento and members of the School Board:
I have a conflict and cannot speak at tonight’s School Board meeting as originally intended. Please review my written comments below and add them to the public record. Thank you.
Below is a letter to the School Board from landscape designer, educator and resident Nancy Striniste, APLD, CBLP. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Striniste. We in the community have a responsibility to protect the health and well being of Arlington’s children.
According to Dr. Stebbins, physician for Arlington Public Schools, 1 out of 11 students in Arlington schools reports having asthma (May 2018).
Scientific research in 2000 established a link between “occasional” childhood exposure to ground-level ozone and the development of asthma. The American Lung Association annually awards Arlington an F grade for smog (ozone).
Children are at higher risk from air pollution because their respiratory defenses are not fully developed, and children breathe more air per pound of body weight than do adults – so they inhale more ozone with each breath they take.

[See asthma statistics/image below.]

So what’s the solution? Mature trees remove significantly more pollutants from the air than their younger, smaller counterparts and mitigate the urban heat island effect: https://dirt.asla.org/2014/01/24/older-trees-absorb-more-carbon

A 2002 study by David Nowak, with the USDA Forest Service, examined how trees affect local and regional air quality by altering the atmosphere of urban environments. What he found was that large, healthy trees greater than 77 centimeters (30 inches) in diameter remove 70 times more air pollution annually than small, healthy trees less than eight centimeters (three inches) in diameter. https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/urban-trees-lets-grow-old-together 
APS’s own students have produced compelling posters using GIS information to document Arlington’s problems with ozone and the urban heat island effect (a driver of ozone concentrations and a positive feedback/forcing agent for climate change).
Westover — for anyone still unaware — also was the site of catastrophic flooding on July 8.
Caption: Water flowing over the Westover Market patio on 7-8-19. Source: https://www.arlnow.com/2019/07/08/flooding-and-power-outage-force-westover-stores-to-close/
Westover Beer Garden Flooding 7-8-19

Westover Beer Garden Flooding 7-8-19


So what’s the solution? Again, large, mature trees provide exponentially greater value in stormwater management:

“Mature trees provide significant stormwater quantity and rate control benefits through soil storage, interception, and evapotranspiration. A tree with a 25-foot diameter canopy and associated soil can manage the 1-inch rainfall from 2,400 square feet of impervious surface. Interception and evapotranspiration also decrease runoff volume with larger trees providing exponentially more benefit than smaller trees.” https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-11/documents/final_stormwater_trees_technical_memo_508.pdf

This area — including the Reed School property — is the very last place where anyone should be cutting down a healthy 54-inch-diameter (4 and 1/2 feet) silver maple and 36 other mature shade trees — some located on or near a steep slope. It also is among the worst places to increase heat-trapping, water-shedding impervious surfaces by 6%.

I urge the School Board to eliminate the unnecessary additional sidewalk around the playground. The ADA doesn’t require playgrounds to be encircled with concrete in order for them to meet basic accessibility standards.

Also please remember that preserving the FREE stormwater-management capacity of the natural landscape also saves money:

Reducing imperviousness surfaces reduce maintenance and construction costs. In addition, reduced imperviousness reduces the size and cost of both the stormwater conveyance system and stormwater management practices. https://stormwater.pca.state.mn.us/index.php?title=MS4_fact_sheet_-_Reducing_Impervious_Surfaces

Preserving undisturbed vegetative cover during land development is a much more cost effective approach than destroying these features and having to construct new stormwater management practices to replace the functions they originally provided.” http://www.cwp.org/reducing-stormwater-runoff/

Saving mature trees, limiting land disturbance and reducing impervious surfaces aren’t just environmental or cost-saving measures, they are all keys to protecting children’s health and well being. I call on the School Board, the County Board and staff members to put children first.

Suzanne Smith Sundburg
ozone and- child health

ozone and- child health


Dear Members of the School Board,  
As a professional sustainable landscape designer, educator, author, advocate, and nature play space design specialist, who happens to live in the neighborhood, I have some serious concerns about some of the choices that were made in siting and designing the play space for the new Reed School.
 The community is thrilled with the thoughtful and creative design of the building, the compactness of the footprint, and the degree to which the architects and APS responded to citizen calls to preserve “green space”; however, it now appears that playing fields were given priority over the mature tree canopy.
 In the  current  design, a bucolic, deeply shaded, and highly prized portion of the site will be mostly eliminated for play equipment and paths.  The design proposes to remove a large number of mature trees, representing a significant amount of environmentally valuable biomass, and extensively grade the area while preserving vast amounts of flat, open playing field space that could easily have accommodated the play equipment and significantly reduced the land disturbance. 
As we read in horror about the Amazon rainforests burning it is incomprehensible that Arlington would choose to remove so many mature trees, and all the environmental services these trees provide.  They are being removed not to accommodate the building, but for play equipment and walkways.
There are proposed parking lots around the site apparently paved with asphalt, where pervious pavers could perhaps be used. This would allow the parking areas to do double duty as stormwater infiltration areas, thus potentially reducing the number of bioretention cells needed for stormwater management and saving space that might be better used for play spaces, outdoor learning, or playing fields.  There may be short term cost issues that informed those decisions, but in light of the recent catastrophic flooding in our community, any opportunity to avoid impervious surface should in my opinion be carefully considered.
In place of this uniquely lovely and impossible to replicate natural space the design proposes new plantings of young American elms, tulip poplars, and willow oaks—commendable choices that will shade children in the future when the trees are mature, but deprive generations of children of the shade of the trees that are being destroyed until perhaps the year 2070.
This area is a natural buffer to the adjacent residences that if preserved could provide generations of Reed schoolchildren with shade, wildlife habitat, noise reduction, privacy, and as we know from basic biology, quite literally air to breathe. 
At the most recent presentation by the design team to the community we learned that the concept of universal access was a design goal on the site.  I commend the team for going beyond what is required by ADA, however compliance with universal design requires extensive grading and thus it seems that the benefits of universal design in this particular corner of the site have been prioritized over the benefits of children’s connection to nature.  There is an exploding body of research that tells us that children need access to nature on their schoolyards.
An exciting series of recent studies demonstrates that schoolyards that have nature and specifically tree cover have a direct effect on student well-being, ability to focus and attend, ability to recover from stress, and even, surprisingly, test scores.[1][2][3] One study found that the proportion of tree cover, as distinct from other types of “green space” such as grass, is a significant positive predictor of student performance, accounting for 13% of the improvement seen in test scores. Having views of trees out the classroom window, trees in the neighborhood, and trees on the campus have all been shown in academic research studies to contribute to aspects of student academic performance. I urge you to pay attention to the science.
I wrote a book about creating outdoor spaces that connect children to the natural world.  Since my book came out in April of this year I have had the opportunity to speak on this topic with groups of educators, environmental educators, and designers around the country and to share details of studies that confirm what we know intuitively: time in nature reduces stress, anxiety and depression; improves ones’ ability to focus and attend especially for children diagnosed with ADHD; increases activity levels and motivation around physical activity and thus reduces childhood obesity; and in the latest research, helps to counter the rapidly increasing rate of childhood vision disturbances caused by screen time.  Nature can help address every one of these very real concerns. 
I am certain that it is possible to design a play space that preserves the tree canopy for current generations of Reed School children (while we wait for new plantings to reach maturity)  and that gives our children the access to nature that they need.
I believe deeply that it is our responsibility to do so. 

[1] Sivarajah S, Smith SM, Thomas SC (2018) Tree cover and species composition effects on academic performance of primary school students. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0193254. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193254
[3]  “The Power of Trees ” By Tina Prow.  Reprinted from The Illinois Steward, with permission. 
Volume 7 Issue 4. Winter 1999.
Nancy Striniste, APLD, CBLP
Author: Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World 
Founder and Principal Designer: EarlySpace, LLC  earth-friendly child-friendly landscapes
Virginia Certified SWaM (Small, Woman, and Minority) owned Micro-Business
Adjunct Faculty, Nature-Based Early Childhood Education,  Antioch University New England
cell 703-989-5426    www.earlyspace.com
EarlySpaceNancy is on Facebook and Instagram
pronouns: she/her/hers