Our View: Environmental actions speak louder than words

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(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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Alexandria’s elected leaders must make difficult decisions that often involve tradeoffs – and those choices seldom leave all sides happy. But when a clear tradeoff is made, our leaders then need to own their choice rather than pretend none was made.

Exhibit A is our city’s clear preference for development over environmental protection. The most egregious example of development’s preeminent place in Alexandria was the decision to locate the Potomac Yard Metro station in the midst of five acres of wetlands rather than in a nearby, non-wetlands location.

The final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was issued on Nov. 15, meaning that construction of the new Metro station on site B – the wetlands site – can now proceed. See our story on page one, “PY Metro proceeds on wetlands site,” for details of that approval.

While we have a hard time cheering the city’s prioritization of development dollars over the environment, it was not an unreasonable decision. This new station has been discussed for the past 20 years, and its location next to the new Amazon headquarters and the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus was an unprecedented chance for Alexandria to maximize commercial tax dollars into the future.

For years, Alexandria’s tax base has skewed toward residential over commercial, meaning our city’s homeowners have borne an increasing tax burden. Since everyone wants to pay fewer taxes but few want cuts to government services, city leaders wound up in a bind.

It’s at least understandable, if not commendable, that they reached for the biggest economic payoff possible when deciding where to locate the Potomac Yard Metro stop.

What’s not acceptable is that they want to also claim the mantle of environmentalists – because in decision after decision, our city has not prioritized the environment.

Another example of the city’s preference for development over the environment was the Karig Estates decision. There, the city ignored the presence of an intermittent stream and an ancient stand of trees to allow maximum development, when a less environmentally destructive alternative was available.

City council’s vote for a “road diet” on Seminary Road is fast proving to be another environmentally suspect decision. Though done in the name of promoting biking and walking, road diets seem to be a fad. Significant numbers of nearby residents claim the narrowing of that major artery from four lanes to two is causing major traffic backups. An environmentally prudent decision would have caused less vehicular idling in traffic, not more.

We find it peculiar that within a one-month period, city council passed a resolution declaring a climate change emergency that calls for drastic reductions in the city’s carbon emissions, while also receiving final approval to damage or destroy four acres of tidal wetlands near the Potomac River.

For the uninitiated, wetlands are crucial to flood mitigation, carbon reduction and protection of important aquatic species of plants and animals. According to Ramsar, the oldest modern, global intergovernmental environmental agreement:

“Wetlands are the planet’s most effective carbon sinks and represent unrealised potential for climate mitigation. … Wetlands make communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change. They provide buffers against sea level rise and storm surges, and reduce the impacts of floods, droughts and cyclones.”

In other words, wetlands do just what city council called for in its climate change resolution.

City council passed a feel-good environmental statement with no teeth. It also chose to destroy or damage four acres of wetlands for a Metro station when a good alternative was possible. As usual, actions speak louder than words.

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