Montebello Grounds Committee’s innovative efforts garner environmental award


Paul Zeisset and Kathy Dismukes of the Montebello Grounds Committee stand in front of a butterfly garden at the condo community.

Fairfax County recently named the winners of its 2023 Environmental Excellence Awards, and the grounds committee at Montebello condominiums was one of the winners in the organization and business category.

For those who live outside the protected gates of the high-rise condos looming over the northern end of the Richmond Highway Corridor, it may come as a surprise that the property includes 20 acres of woodlands and over 2,000 trees. Restoring the urban forest is one of the priorities of the Montebello Grounds Committee, which was established in 2017 by the condo association’s board of directors to research and recommend actions to preserve, maintain and enhance the natural and developed landscapes at Montebello.

The committee’s early work involved getting rid of the English ivy, vines and other invasives in Montebello’s wooded areas and more recently planting 342 native trees as part of a resident-funded Arbor Day program. Now, the 14-member committee is building on that program by creating a proof of concept “pocket forest” to jumpstart forest growth.

Montebello's proof of concept pocket forest

Developed by a Japanese ecologist, the concept of pocket forests involves densely planting native species of trees, shrubs and groundcover in small plots. The plants are forced to compete for sunlight and other resources, resulting in flourishing forests within a couple of decades. Montebello’s trial pocket forest, funded by residents, is just under a thousand square feet with nine tree saplings, 34 shrubs and almost 200 groundcover plants that will be irrigated and mulched for a few years to promote their development.

If this proof of concept works, more pocket forests might be in the offing at Montebello, according to Paul Zeisset, chair of the grounds committee’s woodlands subcommittee. “We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have six more.”

Besides the pocket forest, another committee project was the development of an erosion control drainage pond with step pools providing habitat. The project was undertaken to reduce erosion and stormwater flow into the Potomac River. Montebello residents can view these restoration efforts from the approximately one mile of trails that wend through the woodlands.

Woodlands Subcommittee Chair Paul Zeisset walks along a trail through Montebello's urban forest.

The condo community’s 15 areas of developed landscape also receive attention from the grounds committee. In 2019, following board approval of the committee’s recommendation, contractors built butterfly gardens with native plants around the campus and more recently installed sidewalks, so residents can safely enjoy them.

The combination of the grounds committee’s project advocacy, environmental vigilance, innovative approaches, resident engagement, citizen science and educational outreach is what made the group believe it would be a strong contender for the county’s Environmental Excellence Award, said communications subcommittee chair Kathy Dismukes.

“Our efforts and their results go way beyond what a typical HOA accomplishes, both in the number of projects and their scope,” she said, noting that a resident survey showed strong agreement that the work of the grounds committee helps boost property values.

For Zeisset, the willingness of residents to help fund Montebello’s eco-friendly projects is proof that the grounds committee’s resident engagement efforts have been a success.

“Donor funding is part of community engagement,” he said. “We’re in an area where people care about their environment.”

The Montebello Grounds Committee will receive their recognition from the county at an award ceremony later this fall.

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