New mea­sure seeks to guard forests

Ecol­o­gists want stronger state law; de­vel­op­ers call ideas im­prac­ti­cal

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - MARY­LAND BY ERIN COX

More than 14,450 acres of Mary­land’s forests have dis­ap­peared to de­vel­op­ment in the past eight years, and con­ser­va­tion­ists say that’s the good news.

Be­fore the re­ces­sion damp­ened the build­ing in­dus­try, about 7,000 acres of Mary­land’s tree canopy van­ished ev­ery year.

Now, as the econ­omy re­bounds, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are seek­ing a stronger state law to pre­vent fur­ther degra­da­tion of one of the best fil­ters of Ch­e­sa­peake Bay pol­lu­tion — con­tigu­ous forests that once blan­keted the state.

“We’re still los­ing for­est land, and this bill is ask­ing some­one who cuts down an acre of for­est to plant one,” said state Sen. Ron­ald N. Young (D-Fred­er­ick), who spon­sored the mea­sure.

Young said the stricter rule — a four­fold in­crease from the 1991 For­est Con­ser­va­tion Act’s orig­i­nal stan­dards — is cru­cial to ful­fill­ing the state’s “no net loss” pol­icy on for­est cover­age.

The pro­posal pits con­ser­va­tion­ists against the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity at time when Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R), a for­mer real es­tate de­vel­oper, has pushed other mea­sures to strengthen his en­vi­ron­men­tal record.

“We’re fo­cused on our en­vi­ron­men­tal pack­age, and we’ll see what other bills get to his desk,” Ho­gan spokesman Doug Mayer said. He de­clined to of­fer a po­si­tion on the for­est leg­is­la­tion.

De­vel­op­ers say the one-for-one pro­posal is im­prac­ti­cal and would drive de­vel­op­ment to farm­land, pro­mot­ing sprawl. It would also shift the fo­cus away from pre­serv­ing the most eco­log­i­cally valu­able for­est land, they said.

“Re­plant­ing acre for acre, there’s not enough land in the state, re­ally, to do that,” said Lori Graf, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Mary­land Build­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion. “We’re not look­ing to cut down more trees than we have to.”

Graf said that in many cases, de­vel­op­ment can im­prove the drainage and ecol­ogy of a site and “ac­tu­ally cre­ate a bet­ter en­vi­ron­ment.”

An anal­y­sis of forestry records by the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion found ap­pli­ca­tion of the ex­ist­ing for­est law varies widely, with some East­ern Shore coun­ties re­plant­ing less than 2 per­cent of the forested acres re­moved dur­ing de­vel­op­ment over the past eight years.

Some ju­ris­dic­tions rely heav­ily on a pro­vi­sion that al­lows de­vel­op­ers to pay a fee in­stead of re­plant­ing the trees. Leg­isla­tive an­a­lysts said most fees don’t cover the cost of re­plant­ing, and lo­cal gov­ern­ments of­ten strug­gle to find ways to re­plant.

Ap­pli­ca­tion of the law has also led to law­suits that tan­gle up de­vel­op­ments in court. A pair of pro­posed de­vel­op­ments of wooded prop­erty in An­napo­lis prompted such con­tro­versy that the city de­cided to re­write its lo­cal poli­cies on for­est con­ser­va­tion.

Rob Savidge, an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist, quit his job with the An­napo­lis city gov­ern­ment over the way the city in­ter­preted the law. He’s now push­ing to strengthen the state law to avoid what he views as pit­falls that let de­vel­op­ers ne­go­ti­ate out of re­plant­ing trees.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be a net loss of for­est un­der the way the law is writ­ten,” he said. “If we want to stop that, we’re go­ing to have to change it.”

Lead­ers in the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity stren­u­ously ob­jected to pro­posed changes to the state law, which in­clude sharply es­ca­lat­ing fees de­signed to de­ter com­pa­nies from pay­ing their way out plant­ing trees.

They said the fees ex­ceed the ex­pense of re­plant­ing the trees and could drive the forestry cost of de­vel­op­ing a 100-acre prop­erty from about $98,000 to as much as $400,000.

Tom Bal­len­tine, vice pres­i­dent of pub­lic pol­icy and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions for the com­mer­cial real es­tate de­vel­op­ment as­so­ci­a­tion NAIOP, said the ex­ist­ing law was de­signed to pro­mote re­ten­tion of the most eco­log­i­cally valu­able forests.

“The for­est con­ser­va­tion act was never in­tended to be a no-net-loss tool, by it­self,” he said.

Some ju­ris­dic­tions have used it that way.

Car­roll County, which re­quires de­vel­op­ers to plant an acre of for­est for each cleared dur­ing de­vel­op­ment, has one of the best records in the state and gained 64 acres of forest­land over the past eight years, ac­cord­ing to the bay foun­da­tion’s anal­y­sis.

Jonathan Bow­man, Car­roll’s for­est con­ser­va­tion man­ager, said the mostly ru­ral dis­trict set a high bar decades ago and re­fused to set up a fee sys­tem if de­vel­op­ers can’t meet it. In­stead, the county set up a for­est bank where prop­erty own­ers can vol­un­tar­ily re­for­est prop­erty, then sell the cred­its to de­vel­op­ers who can’t re­plant ev­ery acre they cut down.

“It’s an ac­cepted part of the pro­gram,” Bow­man said. “A lot of peo­ple don’t want to pay a lot of money to re­plant trees, but if that’s how they get their per­mits ap­proved, they’ll do it.”

Since 1995, 557 acres of banked for­est land in Car­roll has been sold to de­vel­op­ers to off­set their projects.

Some state of­fi­cials dis­pute that Mary­land is los­ing any for­est at all, cit­ing other con­ser­va­tion ef­forts that in­crease for­est land and more re­fined meth­ods of count­ing how much of the state’s roughly 6.2 mil­lion acres is cov­ered in trees.

The Mary­land For­est Ser­vice, re­ly­ing on two meth­ods, es­ti­mates at least 2.6 mil­lion acres re­main forested — above the 40 per­cent tree canopy goal set in a 2013 law that man­dated no net loss.

Af­ter the state passed that law, it en­acted two pro­grams to in­crease for­est land: a $25 coupon for home­own­ers who plant trees, and a now-de­funct “Lawn to Wood­land” pro­gram that planted trees on pri­vate prop­er­ties four acres or smaller. That added about 200 acres of for­est be­fore it was dis­con­tin­ued, ac­cord­ing the Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources.

The Mary­land Mu­nic­i­pal League and the Mary­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties, which rep­re­sent lo­cal gov­ern­ments, also ob­jected to the one-for-one pro­posal. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for both or­ga­ni­za­tions told the Se­nate En­vi­ron­ment, Health and Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee last week that cities don’t have enough un­de­vel­oped, un­forested land to ac­com­mo­date that.

If cities looked else­where for places to re­plant, other gov­ern­ments might ob­ject, said Can­dace L. Donoho, lob­by­ist for the mu­nic­i­pal league.

State Sen. Joan Carter Con­way (D-Baltimore), a co-spon­sor of the mea­sure, said there’s room for com­pro­mise and team­work.

“We just wouldn’t run up to Fred­er­ick and say, ‘Hi, here are all of Baltimore’s trees,’ “the com­mit­tee chair­woman said.

The de­vel­op­ment pres­sure on Mary­land’s for­est land is likely to in­crease in the fu­ture, said econ­o­mist Anir­ban Basu, chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Sage Pol­icy Group.

Basu said de­for­esta­tion slowed as de­vel­op­ers fo­cused on of­fice, ho­tel and apart­ment de­vel­op­ment in ur­ban ar­eas to ac­com­mo­date de­mand from mil­len­ni­als at­tached to city life.

But as those 20-some­thing mil­len­ni­als get mar­ried and start fam­i­lies, Basu said, it could en­hance de­mand for the sub­ur­ban de­vel­op­ment that cuts into forests.

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