After a contentious public hearing over a forest conservation bill in one of Maryland’s most populous counties, local lawmakers have scaled back a proposal to tighten requirements for developers to preserve trees or replace those they cut down.Trees were cleared on this site in Severna Park in Anne Arundel County, MD, to prepare for development. The county council has weakened a bill that the county administration proposed to decrease the loss of forest. (Dave Harp)

The Anne Arundel County Council approved more than a dozen amendments to a bill pushed by County Executive Steuart Pittman, with most of the changes easing but not entirely rolling back the forest protections Pittman had proposed. A hearing on the amended bill will take place Nov. 4.

Pittman, who had pledged when he was elected last year to halt “reckless development,” had introduced legislation aimed at protecting the largest and most ecologically important woodlands, including those that border streams and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. His proposal also increased tree planting requirements and raised up to sixfold the fees that developers must pay when they don’t replant.

County officials say action is needed because Anne Arundel is losing 200–300 acres of woodlands a year. Anne Arundel’s current forest conservation law, which mirrors state requirements, hasn’t stemmed the decline. Developers can clear much of a wooded site without having to replant a single tree, officials say. And even when required to replace some of what they cut, developers often opt to pay a fee instead, which officials say doesn’t actually cover the cost of replanting.

During a lengthy debate Monday night, the council scaled back the administration’s proposed tightening of tree-clearing thresholds, beyond which developers would be required to replant.

“We are the first county in the state to raise conservation thresholds” beyond what state law requires, said Allison Pickard, the council vice chair. She said majority of council was only comfortable with the smaller increases set forth in the approved amendments. She suggested the council might revisit the requirements later, after completing a review of the county’s long-range development plan.

The council’s action Monday night comes two weeks after a 3.5-hour public hearing that drew a standing room only crowd to argue for and against tougher forest conservation measures. The original bill is backed by environmental organizations and civic groups as well as residents frustrated over the pace and impacts of development in the county. Many who spoke two weeks ago urged the council to make the legislation even stricter.

But the bill drew fierce opposition at the same hearing from builders and business groups, who complained the measure was so stringent it could make housing less affordable and stifle the local economy. And they questioned whether the county was losing as much forestland to development as Pittman had said in pushing for the bill.

“We aren’t here to make policy on the headlines,” said councilmember Nathan Volke, part of the five-member majority that approved most of the softening amendments. “We’ve got to make policy in the weeds.”

The council majority voted to remove “greenways” from having special protections, arguing that the county had failed to protect many of the ecologically valuable lands it had designated 17 years ago, and some have since been developed. Lawmakers instead amended the bill to protect large wooded areas of at least 100 acres along Bay tributaries that are breeding grounds for birds and habitat for other wildlife — though administration officials argued for protecting tracts as small as 50 acres.

“I don’t know how many 100-acre woods we have,” said councilmember Sarah Lacey, one of two dissenters to the provision.

Addressing one of the complaints raised by developers that the bill would drive growth away from where it’s intended to go, the council majority voted to exempt the redevelopment of built-up areas from the tougher standards.

The majority also softened the fee increases developers and landowners would have to pay in lieu of replanting trees themselves. Pittman had proposed boosting the fees by up to sixfold, with the higher rates reflecting what his aides said is the value of the ecological services forests provide in clean air, water, habitat and cooling.

The council dialed the fee hikes back by half or more. They did agree, though, to more than triple the fee for clearing land in violation of the forest conservation law, from 80 cents per square foot of cleared trees to $3 per square foot.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman addresses a forest conservation rally in Annapolis, MD, on Oct. 7. (Timothy B. Wheeler)“These are huge increases,” Volke said. He said the amended fees would still be on par with the highest fees charged by any other locality in the state.

But councilmember Lisa Rodvien argued the fees should be much higher to deter developers from removing trees without replanting. The city of Annapolis, she noted, charges $10 per square foot in such cases.

Rodvien, who opposed each softening amendment, proposed a series of amendments to make the administration bill stronger instead. She argued that what the county really needs — and what most of the public wants — is a firm policy that will ensure no more net loss of forest.

“They’re sick of seeing trees cut down,” she said.

Nathan Pruski, the council chair, said he couldn’t go along with a no-net-loss policy until the county had upgraded transportation, increased affordable housing and achieved denser development along public transit lines. All of Rodvien’s strengthening amendments failed.

Afterward, Matt Johnston, the county’s environmental policy director, called the council action “a big step forward” toward strengthening forest protections, though he noted that the amended bill would not be as strong as the administration’s original proposal.

“We just don’t think this gets us to where we want to be,” he said.

Tom Ballentine, vice president for policy for the Maryland chapter of the commercial real estate industry association, said he appreciated the council making changes to ensure growth can occur where the county has planned it.

“There needs to be an ability for those areas to still be job and housing centers,” he said. But he said he needed to study the changes more to determine whether the industry could support the bill now.

Ben Alexandro, water program director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the council changes made the legislation “much weaker.” If passed now, he contended, the county would continue to experience significant forest loss.

Chris Trumbauer, the executive’s senior policy adviser, pointed out that under the amendments, developers in some cases could still clear half of a large forested site without having to do any replanting on site or paying to plant trees elsewhere.

Even so, the administration has taken one step under the current law to reduce forest loss: Steve Kaii-Ziegler, the county’s planning and zoning officer, said that his staff had stopped routinely granting modifications to the law’s requirements whenever developers said it would be too hard to comply. As a result, he added, many are adjusting their projects to comply with the law as stated.

The revised bill is scheduled for a public hearing at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 at the county office building in Annapolis, after which the council could vote it up or down — or opt to amend it further.