One Man’s James River View

Mrs. Leahy and I are members of the Friends of James River Park. Recently, an email was circulated to the membership regarding a number of trees that Stuart Siegel had removed from Science Museum of Virginia property along the James River in order to improve his view. It seems someone either didn’t follow, or possibly even ignored, the rules about removing trees from the River. An email from Ellen Wolf of the FoJRP to Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch lays out the problem:

Thanks for taking the time on a weekend to come talk about the clearing of the Science Museum property below the Siegel house. I plan to call the Department of Conservation and Recreation first thing in the morning to report what certainly appears to be a violation of the regulations promulgated under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. The James River is certainly a resource protection area, which requires a 100 foot buffer (VAC10-20-80, p. 4). On page 12, “permitted modifications” to this buffer are described:

5. Permitted modifications of the buffer area.

a. In order to maintain the functional value of the buffer area, existing vegetation may be removed, subject to approval by the local government, only to provide for reasonable sight lines, access paths, general woodlot management, and best management practices, including those that prevent upland erosion and concentrated flows of stormwater, as follows:

(1) Trees may be pruned or removed as necessary to provide for sight lines and vistas, provided that where removed, they shall be replaced with other vegetation that is equally effective in retarding runoff, preventing erosion, and filtering nonpoint source pollution from runoff.

(2) Any path shall be constructed and surfaced so as to effectively control erosion.

(3) Dead, diseased, or dying trees or shrubbery and noxious weeds (such as Johnson grass, kudzu, and multiflora rose) may be removed and thinning of trees may be allowed, pursuant to sound horticultural practice incorporated into locally-adopted standards.

(4) For shoreline erosion control projects, trees and woody vegetation may be removed, necessary control techniques employed, and appropriate vegetation established to protect or stabilize the shoreline in accordance with the best available technical advice and applicable permit conditions or requirements.

The Science Museum Foundation did not seek approval by the local government, allowed the removal of far more vegetation than necessary for “reasonable” sight lines, and made no attempt to replace the vegetation removed.

Their professed lack of knowledge of the extent of what was being done in no way mitigates their failure to follow the law, nor their failure to oversee, or even once inspect, what was happening on their property and with their permission. In fact, their casual treatment of the Siegel request demonstrates negligence, and an irresponsible lack of stewardship for the valuable resource so generously endowed them, and for river health and aesthetics in general. This from an agency of the state, one of whose missions is “to foster a love of nature and a concern for its preservation.” (from its mission statement.) (The quibble that the foundation is a private entity, not a state agency, is hair-splitting that not many citizens and environmental groups are likely to take seriously.)

That there even is a law that governs the establishment and protection of a 100 foot riparian buffer along the banks of the James is not widely known. Ralph White did not know of it, Helen Tansey of Virginia Forever (a Nature Conservancy spin-off) did not know if it, and the Science Museum did not know of it. The many James River Park visitors and recreational boaters who over the summer watched the progressive destruction of one of the Park’s most beautiful views did not know that what they were bemoaning is, in fact, illegal, and could have been stopped had they known to report it and to whom.

There IS a story here: 1.) a conservation law has been broken by a state agency whose mission is to educate the public and foster a love of nature 2.) that law was broken at the request of private citizen who also failed to oversee or inspect work he had contracted for, and 3.) the complete obscurity of that law means that this is probably happening every day.

This is one side of the story and I don’t know if it has appeared in the RTD (or at least I could not find one this morning). It is entirely possible that the Science Museum did all that it was required to do, under law, to ensure the cutting was properly handled. If anyone has more information on this matter, please pass it on.

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6 responses to “One Man’s James River View”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    It is too bad this happened, and it is too bad that people who should have known and understood the law didn’t. Probably this is a case of what it looks like: someone wanted a view more than they wanted trees.

    It is also too bad there is such a fuss about it, and it is too bad that we make the presumption that what happened was bad. A love of nature and a concern for its preservation ought to at least mean we understand the story before we start cluck-clucking.

    For starters, just because the area was previously undisturbed doesn’t mean it was being properly conserved. We don’t know that what happened was really irresponsible stewardship.

    For all we know,the trees and vegetation were invasive species, which needed to be cleaned out.

    There are plenty of places where trees along the river bank are no longer protecting the bank, because the river has undercut the trees. (Of course this might be because of other problems someplace else, but the result is the same.) In that case the thing to do is remove the vegetation, regrade the bank to a shallow V to decrease the flood velocity and erosion, and replant the bank.

    But, try and actually dig along a streambed and watch what happens.

    What’s worse is, that if someone knowledgeable did come along and propose such “conservation” some bureucratic law enforcer would probably say “NO”, just because of the way the law is written. Without understanding what really ought to happen: including a “reasonable” view of the river.

    Why is a view FROM the river more importaant than a view TO the river? Is this about the views, or is it really about what is environmentally responsible? Or is it just what WE want as opposed to what someone else wants?


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    you guys know that I’m a paddler. I’ve probably done a 1000 miles or more of Va rivers – across the state.

    At the river bank. if you take the trees for a pasture or a view.. it’ll do just dandy until the floods comes.. then the bank will be scoured .. and the velocity of the water will increase which will result in the banks downstream of the cleared bank… being undercut… then the trees falling in… more bare bank .. and so on and so forth…

    higher up on the slopes… RH asks:
    Why is a view FROM the river more importaant than a view TO the river?”

    I think it is a fair question even though I will fully admit that as a paddler I prefer NOT to see trees cleared and houses perched over the edge…

    but also consider this.. if you have mature trees on that slope.. they shade the understory… and inhibit the growth of brush and smaller trees.

    If you take the big trees’ll have a nice view for a couple of years and then you’ll have an explosion of vegetation.. and yes.. invasives… where you once had oaks and hickories…

    if you clear the brush out.. and leave the bigger trees.. better.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Yeah, RH, it’s all about everyone else dumping on Mr. Siegel.

    Because we all know that, in the Richmond area, when a rich and powerful citizen wants something, the law is of secondary importance.

    I mean, really: How dare ANYONE question the motives of a lawbreaker when he has just the right amount of money and power. The very idea! And how unfair!

    (When in doubt, feign ignorance and play the victim)

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    You are taking me wrong, I agreed up front that what happened was most likely wrong and unfortunate.
    It is particularly egregious considering there have been similar well publicized events, also involving the wealthy and powerful along the Potomac river.

    But it does not mean that every time we lose a tree it is an environmental catastrophe. My point is that sometimes work needs to be done, and it needs to be done correctly. We should not go Ratso Rizzo over this in a knee jerk fashion.

    There are times when the streambeds need work in order to be preserved. I have seen numerous places where the stream bed has scouered down into a gully, such that the stream bed was lower than the tree roots. Partially, this happens because the vegetation is so thick that normal floading cannot occur and the water stays too much in the streambed, causing it to scour out deeper. In such cases the trees do no good because the roots are undercut by the stream and the trees fall in.

    True, in general the trees, especially the ones farther back do decrease or slow down runoff. That decreases the velocity in the stream and reduces scouring, but that effect is mostly farther down stream and does not help the local situation very much.

    But the other way to decrease velocity is to grade the bank into a brosd sloping shallow v. Then, when there is increased flow the water spreads out, rather than climbs up, which increases the velocity. The name of the game is to get more water down the river without increasing velocity which causes scouring. With a wide V shape the flood plain is much larger and shallower. The velocity is greatly reduced because more water has friction on the bottom. the whole point of this is to avoid the situation Larry describes.

    This effect is greatly improved if the area is also planted with some but not too many trees especially farther back from the stream bed. Other sturdy vegetation will do as well. Some grasses will do even better. Certainly such areas should NOT be pastures, but there are still plenty of places where owners still inexplicably allow cattle in the stream beds. In any case, invasives need to be kept down, even where mature and more valuable trees exist. These things will crowd in and choke out even mature trees. None of this happens naturally: it takes maintenance.

    For the most part, I’m talking about minor streams the kind that more people have to live with and care for, not the rivers that are big enough to paddle. Proper maintenance of those streams will go a long way to help prevent the rivers from flooding or flooding so quickly. The same kind of maintenance is impractical and unlikely for large streams, so we need to distinguish what we are talking about.

    Sure, no one likes to paddle through a housing development: we would prefer to think we are in the wilderness. Was this house a historical one? If so, it was probably situated in order to have a view of the river, and it would be historically inaccurate to create or allow an artificial barrier.

    Finally, Anonymous is correct:when a rich and powerful citizen wants something, the law is of secondary importance. If you want to make lawbreakers, just write laws that people think are stupid and inflexible. If you create a situation where it is worthwhile to break the law, and where reasonable flexibility is not possible, then guess what is going to happen?

    Probably, mosdt or some of what he wanted to do would be allowable under the law, but whether it would in fact be allowed is another matter. There is, after all, almost no cost in saying “No”.
    And almost no benefit either, in some cases.

    If we treat his trees as if they are ours and our desires as somehow more important than other’s desires then we set ourselves up for exactly this sort of thing. We create a situation where it is easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission, and as a result we lose the ability to negotiate and educate, and trade it for payment of a fine.

    The attitude of Anonymous and the attitude of those that act inappropriately are both wrong, in my opinion, and the winner take all approach on both sides gurantees more confrontation and less ability for anyone to come away satisfied.

    In particular, such an approach does NOTHING to achieve what the law intends: reduce concentrated flows of floodwater and upland erosion. As long as we can achieve that and allow the owners ome flexibility, there is no point in berating people just because they are doing something that offends our aesthetics.

    It is bad PR. Crying wolf at every shadow or railing aginst anyone who makes a profit, reduces our effectiveness as environmental shepherds. Even shepherds allow the sheep to eat the grass, here and there. We have to learn to use the pasture without wrecking it, and that includes the pasture of public opinion.


  5. I don’t know anything about the James River matter.

    However, I have followed similar incidents along the Potomac River.

    On the Potomac River matters there is too little and ineffective enforcement against the law breakers. In one case the law breaker cut down trees on public property to improve his view of the river. There could be no chance that the person thought the trees in question were growing on his property. He just didn’t care and the fines were acceptable given the person’s wealth.

    If a poor kid got caught smashing public property with a bseball bat he’d do some time. When a rich guy destroys public property (i.e. trees) he should do some time too.

    And the one thing that will scare even rich people into proper behavior is the possibility of doing time. Even a little time will be enough. Best of all – you can also fine them so much money that it pays for their incarceration and generates a profit.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    “In one case the law breaker cut down trees on public property to improve his view of the river. There could be no chance that the person thought the trees in question were growing on his property. He just didn’t care and the fines were acceptable given the person’s wealth.”

    Clearly, cutting down trees that are not your own is wrong, even more so if they are public trees. Someone once stole 15 acres of walnut trees off the farm. Incarceration may be proper for such crimes.

    It might even be wrong to cut down trees that are your own, if doing so causes problems off your property. But you ought to be offered a fair possibility of cutting the trees if the off-site problems are properly and substantially mitigated.

    But for some reason, it is not so clear that that it is wrong to require people to GROW trees that are not your own. The obvious way to solve this problem is to make sure that the trees you want are public trees, in which case it is clear that cutting them down is wrong.

    Or, we can just claim that the trees ARE our own, which is what frequently happens when we rail about “our” environment. But if they are going to be OUR trees, then we ought to pay rent to those whose land they are on.


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