LO­CAL OPIN­IONS

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - The writer is a mem­ber of Ar­ling­ton County’s Ur­ban Forestry Com­mis­sion.

Ar­ling­ton neigh­bors worked to­gether, and with a home builder, to save a cham­pion oak tree.

All too of­ten, when older homes are de­mol­ished to make room for larger new homes, the trees that shaded the old homes, some­times for gen­er­a­tions, are cut down.

That could have been the fate of a mighty oak on the cor­ner of North Not­ting­ham and 27th streets. More than 18 feet in cir­cum­fer­ence, the Willde­now’s oak (a nat­u­ral hy­brid be­tween a black oak and south­ern red oak) es­caped the wide­spread felling of Ar­ling­ton’s trees dur­ing the Civil War for fuel and build­ing ma­te­ri­als and is listed among Ar­ling­ton’s 100 des­ig­nated “cham­pion” trees. Thought to be the largest Willde­now’s oak in the state, with its acorns in the Smith­so­nian, “it’s truly ir­re­place­able and a liv­ing part of Ar­ling­ton’s his­tory,” said lo­cal plant ecol­o­gist Rod Sim­mons.

That pedi­gree, how­ever, of­fered no pro­tec­tion against de­vel­op­ers’ chain saws. To make room for a larger house, “nor­mally it would have been taken down,” said DS Homes project man­ager Bill Nichols. DS Homes bought the prop­erty for re­de­vel­op­ment in 2014, af­ter the long­time home­owner died.

But this story has a happy end­ing, thanks to the ac­tivism of lo­cal res­i­dents and the will­ing­ness of DS Homes to al­ter its orig­i­nal plans. Neigh­bor Vicki Ar­royo, my wife, col­lected scores of sig­na­tures on a pe­ti­tion to save the tree.

“It was clear that Ar­ling­ton res­i­dents are frus­trated by the loss of ma­ture trees to de­vel­op­ment,” she said. “Peo­ple of all ages wanted to do what they could to save this spe­cial tree, but there was also a sense that ‘enough is enough.’ ”

When Paula Kelso, an­other neigh­bor, an ed­i­tor at The Post and a vol­un­teer for Tree Stew­ards of Ar­ling­ton and Alexan­dria, be­came aware of the threat, she swung into ac­tion. “I made a cou­ple of ur­gent calls to the de­vel­oper, know­ing that the heavy ma­chin­ery could come up at any minute,” she said. Kelso or­ga­nized meet­ings be­tween neigh­bors and DS Homes. As a re­sult, “be­fore we even started the house, we knew that there had been a pe­ti­tion and that the neigh­bor­hood wanted the tree saved,” Nichols said. “When we go into a neigh­bor­hood, we want to get along with ev­ery­one. So we de­cided that DS Homes was go­ing to do what it could to save the tree.”

The de­sign­ers worked around the huge oak, which is near the edge of a wide lot, sit­ing the garage on the tree side of the prop­erty. Be­cause there would be no base­ment un­der the garage, the tree’s roots would have the max­i­mum room and min­i­mum dis­tur­bance, leav­ing plenty of room for a large house.

Pro­tect­ing the oak saved DS Homes thou­sands of dol­lars in tree re­moval costs, as well as the ex­pense of plant­ing new trees to meet Ar­ling­ton County’s re­quire­ment that tree canopies cover 20 per­cent of a re­de­vel­oped prop­erty within 20 years of con­struc­tion. “It was a whole lot bet­ter that we saved the tree,” said Nichols. “It is so ap­peal­ing — and a heck of a con­ver­sa­tion piece.”

In fact, the oak, and what it rep­re­sented, was one of the key at­trac­tions for the buy­ers of the new house, Ni­cholas and Lisa Solinger. “We had lived in a sim­i­lar older neigh­bor­hood in Min­nesota, with a sim­i­larly grand tree in the front yard,” said Ni­cholas Solinger. He found an ar­ti­cle about the neigh­bor­hood pe­ti­tion to save the tree, he said. “We were just tick­led by the tree and the story it­self of the neigh­bor­hood com­ing to­gether.”

The Solingers hung a tire swing from one of the tree’s mas­sive branches for their two boys to play on, and they and their friends are lov­ing it.

The tree’s im­mense canopy of­fers shade, and the oak also in­ter­cepts tens of thou­sands of gal­lons of rain­wa­ter that oth­er­wise would pour each year into storm sew­ers and streams — and per­haps into base­ments.

What’s frus­trat­ing to Ar­ling­ton’s many tree lovers, though, is that such sto­ries are un­usual. “It’s rare to pre­serve of tree of this spe­cial­ness,” said Ar­ling­ton County’s act­ing ur­ban for­est man­ager Vin­cent Ver­weij. The key to pre­serv­ing the Not­ting­ham Street Willde­now’s oak? Neigh­bor­hood ac­tivism, Ver­weij said.

“For me and for this neigh­bor­hood, it has be­come a uni­fy­ing em­blem, and a re­minder of this area’s past,” said Kelso. “I hope it will serve as en­cour­age­ment to oth­ers who want to do the same thing in their neigh­bor­hoods.”

JOHN CAREY

Neigh­bor­hood ac­tivism en­cour­aged a de­vel­oper to de­sign a house around this Willde­now’s oak on the lot.

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