Battle lines have been drawn in one of Maryland’s most populous counties over preserving more of its forest land from development, in a debate that could be a test case for the rest of the state.Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman addresses a forest conservation rally in Annapolis, MD, on Oct. 7. Pittman's administration has proposed a bill to stem forest loss in the county, which officials say averages 300 acres each year. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

The Anne Arundel County Council held a nearly three-hour public hearing Monday night in Annapolis on a bill introduced by County Executive Steuart Pittman that he has said would “transform our county from the clear-cutting capital of Maryland to a leader in forest conservation.”

County officials say action is needed because Anne Arundel has lost 2,775 acres of forest since 2010, or about 300 acres a year, which they say is a greater loss than all of the surrounding counties combined.

Pittman, who pledged during his election campaign last year to curb “reckless development,” is pushing legislation that would substantially tighten the county’s protections for existing woodlands beyond what the 1991 state forest conservation law requires.

The bill would:

  • Increase “conservation thresholds” that specify how much land a developer may clear without having to replant or pay a fee
  • Protect the largest and most ecologically important woodlands, including tracts of 50 acres or more that are deep enough to harbor forest-dwelling birds or that border streams
  • Increase tree planting requirements
  • Raise up to six-fold the fees developers must pay when they don’t replant

“This is not anything radical,” Pittman told about 200 supporters at a rally for the bill outside the county office building in Annapolis before the hearing.

The measure enjoys strong support from environmental organizations and civic groups, and it capitalizes on widespread public frustration over the pace and impacts of development in the county. A bipartisan poll done recently for the Arundel Rivers Federation reported that more than three out of four voters contacted favored the forest conservation legislation, while fewer than one in 10 opposed it.

“Forests are the sponges of the land, that keep stormwater from polluting the waterways,” South Riverkeeper Jesse Iliff said before the hearing. “Especially in Anne Arundel County,” he added, “where we don’t have large-scale agriculture or heavy industry, stormwater is the number one problem for our rivers and creeks. Anything we can do to slow it down and soak it up is going to reap dividends to water quality.”

Trees were cleared on this site in Severna Park in Anne Arundel County, MD, to prepare for development. (Dave Harp)

County officials say that Anne Arundel’s current forest conservation requirements, which hew closely to the state law, haven’t stemmed the decline of forest cover. Some developers opt to pay fees intended to partly compensate for the trees they clear by funding plantings elsewhere, but officials say those fees aren’t sufficient to cover the cost.

“The evidence is the declining health of all of our rivers,” Iliff said. He noted that report cards on the Chesapeake Bay’s health have given sub-par grades to all six of the Bay tributaries in the county.

The seven-member council heard from a parade of 75 speakers during the hearing who argued for and against the bill. Environmental and community activists, along with concerned residents, warned that the quality of the county’s air, water and everyday life are in jeopardy as forests shrink.

They called for prompt action to halt the loss of trees and woodlands in the county, with a few citing scientific studies on the role forests play in curbing pollution and fighting climate change. A couple even quoted poetry (Joyce Kilmer’s classic, Trees) and the famous children’s environmental tale by Dr. Seuss, The Lorax. They urged the council not to weaken the measure and consider making it stronger.

Builders, business leaders and others in the real estate industry recited a litany of dire predictions if the bill passes as written. It would virtually shut down development, they warned, costing thousands of jobs, aggravating a shortage of affordable housing and depriving the county of tax revenue.

“This is not a forest conservation bill. This is an anti-development bill,” declared Angelica Bailey, vice president of the Maryland Building Industry Association.

Even without the forest conservation bill, the county is facing a housing crunch, industry representatives say. They argued that Anne Arundel’s designated growth area only has room for about 7,600 more residential units, yet the Baltimore Metropolitan Council has projected growth of more than 30,000 new households countywide through 2045.

“The result will be to deflect significant amounts of future growth to Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore,” predicted Tom Ballentine, vice president for policy for the Maryland chapter of the commercial real estate industry association. 

Such leapfrog development and sprawl would undermine the state’s efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and reduce emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases, Ballentine said. More dispersed housing would require more driving, stream-killing pavement and fossil fuel consumption.

Others suggested that the council should defer action until it has finished reviewing and updating the county’s general development plan, which would allow time to consider the impacts of tighter forest conservation requirements on where and how growth takes place in the county.

Moreover, industry representatives questioned the severity of forest loss, saying that data compiled by the state Department of Natural Resources indicated that Anne Arundel’s tree canopy decline was about a third less than the administration asserted.

But county officials defended their figures, saying they are similar to tree canopy loss estimates for Anne Arundel developed recently by the Chesapeake Conservancy. After analyzing high-resolution imagery of changes in tree canopy, the Annapolis-based nonprofit calculated that the county had lost about 2,500 acres from 2013 to 2017. More than 80% of the losses occurred on private land, it said, with the remainder on government-owned tracts.

The conservancy further estimated that about one-fifth of the loss took place on state-designated Critical Area land bordering the Bay and its tidal tributaries, where trees are especially needed to help prevent runoff pollution and provide wildlife habitat. Anne Arundel has the fifth largest amount of Bay shoreline in the state.

“By any measure, we are losing forest in this county, and that means we are harming water quality,” said Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which supports the bill.

Supporters accused the business community of crying wolf, saying the bill’s critics ignored the multiple options developers have for building without having to pay higher fees. Advocates said they expect tighter forest conservation requirements to boost redevelopment on already cleared land, not shut down all growth. Several urged the council to strengthen the bill by adopting the same “no net loss” policy that the City of Annapolis enacted a few years ago. Two city officials testified that development has not been halted there as a result, even though the city’s fees for not replanting trees are substantially higher than the increased fees proposed in the county bill.

The hearing echoed debates that have played out without resolution for three years now at the state level, where environmental groups have failed to persuade the General Assembly to strengthen the state’s 28-year-old forest conservation law.

Activists are hoping action in Anne Arundel could inspire other Maryland localities to follow suit. Howard County Executive Calvin Ball last week introduced legislation to strengthen that county’s local forest conservation requirements.

Before hearing from the public, councilmembers peppered Pittman’s staff with questions about the forest loss data and about details of the bill and its potential impacts. One member expressed dismay that until recently, the county had not been using the fees it collected from developers to replant trees, but had been disbursing it to the Chesapeake Bay Trust to purchase conservation easements on privately owned property.

“The county should be using that money to replant trees,” said councilmember Jessica Haire. She suggested that at least some of the county’s forest loss could be blamed on weak enforcement of the existing law. Indeed, Iliff, the South Riverkeeper, also noted during the hearing that in previous years, the county had granted 94% of developers’ requests to modify or relax forest conservation requirements on their projects.

A couple of council members suggested that with so much in dispute about a very complex bill, perhaps the measure should be held for study by a work group that could hear from all sides. Chris Trumbauer, an aide to Pittman and former council member, said the administration would work with councilmembers to address their concerns.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the council unanimously agreed to hold off on voting on the bill until Oct. 21. Councilmember Lisa Rodvien, who moved for the delay, said she did so to allow time for amendments to be put before the council. The issue is so complicated, she said, that “my colleagues would like a little time to digest this.”