Chain Bridge Forest Tree Destruction, by Gary Anthes

June 16, 2020

In 1987, someone bought what must have been a double lot at 3865 River St. N. in Chain Bridge Forest because he loved trees and he wanted a green buffer zone around his house. When he died, developers snapped up the property and then persuaded Arlington to permit six houses on the double lot. Neighbors opposed the six-house plan, arguing that as a double lot it was only suitable for two houses. They were able to reduce it to four houses. They also lobbied for saving at least some of the 200 (!) trees on the property.

Not only have all the trees been cut down, adjacent neighbors report root damage and death for some of the trees on their properties. The County told neighbors who wanted screening trees planted as a buffer around the new houses should plant those trees on their own properties.

“Arlington was no help at all, it ran roughshod over the wishes of the neighborhood,” a neighbor told me. Much of the story is here: (The story mentions ATAG’s Kit Norland.)

Notes on pictures:
No. 1. Original house is shown in yellow. Its placement is extraordinary as it appears to abut as many as 15 (!) other properties.


No. 2. An aerial view of the property from several years ago.

No. 3. An aerial view of the property from earlier this year, after most of the trees had been cut down. (They are all gone now.)

No. 4. The site-plan. Note the placement of houses. Some of the set-backs are as little as eight feet although Arlington zoning apparently requires 25 feet along rear properties. Those 15 other houses that once saw mature green trees from their rear decks will now look out on their neighbors’ barbecue grills and swimming pools.

No. 5 The property as seen from River St.

No. 6 The new access road into the property. A sign identifies it as “39th St. N.,” an Arlington County public road. So I assume Arlington built the road for the developer? Wouldn’t the developer in these situations normally build his own road (and give it some poetic name like Tree Death Lane or Water Runoff Rd.)?

No. 7 There are more than 20 of these “Tree Protection Area” signs posted around the property, every few feet along the perimeter fence. They are a cruel joke as not a stick of vegetation, not so much as a dandelion or a lichen, remains on the property. (I see these signs all over the County and they are often nothing but pathetic PR, a sham by developers to give the impression that they care about conservation.)

No. 8 But maybe the signs mean that it’s the neighbors’ trees that are to be protected? This photo shows a recently dead tree, on the property border in someone’s back yard.

No. 9 The property from the rear looking toward River Rd.

No. 10 I thought I smelled a rat here, and I did.

No. 11 Storm water from this site drains underground into a little stream that runs under River Rd. near here. That stream in turn runs into Pimmit Run which flows into the Potomac River at Chain Bridge. This photo shows the damage to Pimmit Run and to the adjacent trail and trees. The damage gets worse every time there is a major storm.

Anguished and angry letters to the County last year were answered with platitudes – “we understand your concerns…” – and references to the fine- and very-fine print of the Arlington Zoning Ordinance Articles. The County’s defense of its actions is contained in a long, densely written letter here: My summary of the letter: We followed all the rules and, anyway, what we allowed here is no different from what we have permitted in other land-rape development projects in Arlington, so get over it.

I don’t know which I find more discouraging, that the County did or didn’t follow all the rules. In any case the result is catastrophic for the Chain Bridge “Forest” residents and the environment.

I’m new to this issue, but in the few cases I have seen so far it seems developers tend to win and every other interest loses. Developers and Arlington officials spout platitudes, but the end result tends to be one that maximizes developer profits and Arlington tax revenues. Am I right in being this pessimistic? Do the forces for conservation sometimes win, or always lose? Are their lessons or best practices we can learn from our wins and losses?