Forest conservation efforts are slowly gaining traction in Maryland, one county at a time.On Nov. 18, the county council in Anne Arundel County, MD, passed that advocates say will reduce forest loss from development. The tract shown here was cleared in preparation for a housing development. (Jim Lyons)

After holding multiple public meetings and debating dozens of amendments, the Anne Arundel County Council on Nov. 18 unanimously passed legislation to strengthen local forest retention and replacement requirements in one of the state’s most populous and fastest growing counties.

That same night, the Howard County Council heard from a parade of witnesses for and against legislation to tighten forest protections there, where growth has been the greatest in the last decade.

Meanwhile, Frederick County’s top official said she’s planning to introduce a bill early next year to restore requirements for replacing cleared woodlands.

The vote in Anne Arundel marked a milestone, since it comes after three years of inconclusive debate in the General Assembly over whether to beef up Maryland’s forest conservation law.

Forests are a critical element of a healthy Chesapeake Bay; they reduce polluted runoff, control floods and provide wildlife habitat. They also filter out air pollution and soak up climate-altering carbon dioxide. About 57% of the six-state Bay watershed is forested, according to the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, but much of that is threatened by development.

Surveys have found that forests cover about 40% of the landscape in Maryland, the nation’s fifth most densely populated state. Under the state forest conservation law, first passed in 1991 and amended several times since, the loss of trees has slowed. But activists say the state is still not protecting its largest and most ecologically valuable woodlands.

They have failed to move state lawmakers, though. So, activists have shifted their strategy to press for local protections that would go beyond the state requirements.

Healthy forests are important for water quality, wildlife habitat and clean air. They also absorb climate-altering greenhouse gases.Their first target was Anne Arundel, which has more than 500 miles of shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. There is widespread frustration among residents there over the pace and impacts of growth, and County Executive Steuart Pittman had pledged during his successful election campaign last year to rein in “reckless development.”

The legislation Pittman introduced in early September enjoyed broad support; a poll commissioned by the nonprofit Arundel Rivers Federation found 81% of residents want stronger forest protections. Activists and concerned citizens flocked to the public hearing and many pressed for even stricter limits on forest removal.

But developers and business leaders turned out in force against the legislation. They warned that the bill would curtail building in the county, making housing less affordable. They also predicted it would worsen suburban sprawl, undermining efforts to clean up the Bay and combat climate change.

The seven-member council responded initially by approving more than a dozen amendments, many addressing opponents’ complaints by easing the strengthening changes Pittman had proposed. At a subsequent meeting, the council made more amendments, some of which at least partially restored the administration’s provisions.

As finally passed, the Arundel bill includes provisions that would:

  • Increase “conservation thresholds” that determine how much forest must be preserved on a construction site;
  • Prioritize protection of contiguous woodland tracts of 75 acres or more;
  • Double tree replanting requirements; and
  • Increase by as much as threefold the fees developers would have to pay if they opted not to replant trees.

The final bill left two issues unresolved. The council stripped protections for county-designated “greenways,” large areas of open and natural space that have never been protected from development as originally intended. Council members said they would deal with that in updating the county’s general development plan next year. Some also suggested they wanted to revisit decisions made years ago that promoted growth on some of the county’s peninsulas, where the remaining woodlands are critical to preventing water pollution.Designated greenways were excluded from the new forest protection measures in Anne Arundel County, MD, due to an argument that they have not been protected as originally intended. If approved, a development planned for this Glebe Heights forest in Edgewater will remove trees from a greenway. (Dave Harp)

While the final bill was not as strong as what he had proposed, Pittman praised the outcome, saying it makes Anne Arundel a state leader in forest protection.

“At the end of the day, all voices were heard and the process worked as it should,” he said in a statement after the council vote.

Environmental and community activists supported the final bill as well, even if it didn’t eliminate forest loss altogether. The existing law allowed developers to clear more than 60% of a forested site without having to do anything, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation noted. It predicted the new protections would reduce forest loss by half.

“We hope other cities and counties will follow Anne Arundel County and find ways to limit forest clearing,” said Alison Prost, the foundation’s Maryland executive director.

Howard County is poised to tackle the issue next. The five-member council heard roughly two hours of testimony Nov. 18 on a rewrite of the county’s Forest Resource Ordinance, which had not been updated in 20 years.

The bill introduced by County Executive Calvin Ball would make nearly 40 changes in the law to strengthen it and combat what county officials have called “forest migration.” Woodlands are being lost in the more densely developed eastern portion of the county, officials say, and trees are being replanted in the more rural western portion. The legislation aims to “keep the natural and built environment together,” explained Joshua Feldmark, director of community sustainability.

The bill would require residential developments to manage 75% of their forest retention and replanting onsite. It would increase reforestation requirements, mandating acre-for-acre replacement in many cases, four times the level called for in state law. And it would raise fees developers can pay instead of replanting, putting them on par with what Anne Arundel’s council just passed.

Feldmark suggested some activists may hope, and some developers fear, the legislation would halt growth in its tracks. Neither is the case, he added. “The changes we propose would force development to be better,” he said.

In a virtual echo of the Anne Arundel debate, environmental and community activists spoke in favor of the Howard bill, with many urging the council to make it even stronger. Kurt Schwarz, speaking on behalf of a county birding group and the Maryland Ornithological Society, noted that there have been steep declines in Maryland of forest-dwelling birds.

Developers, meanwhile, contended that some provisions were unworkable and warned that if passed as introduced, they wouldn’t be able to build homes to the density allowed by current zoning. That could make housing less affordable and aggravate sprawl, leading to more driving that would add stream-killing pavement and undercut the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

“People’s property rights and [development] density are going to be taken away with no notice, and that’s not fair,” said Mark Levy of H&H Rock Companies, based in Elkridge. He complained that county officials were creating an “anti-business environment.”

Cathy Hudson, a past president of the Howard County Citizens Association, told council members the conflicting testimony left them with a seemingly stark choice: “Economic apocalypse or…environmental apocalypse.” While there may be a price to pay for better protecting forests, she said, “What does this cost if we don’t enact this bill?

The council was slated to review and consider amendments to the 26-page bill in a work session on Nov. 22. Under county rules, the council has until Jan. 13 to act on it or extend consideration.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Frederick County, County Executive Jan Gardner said she’s planning to renew an effort she made years ago to tighten replanting requirements there.

Back in the late 2000s when she was president of the county commissioners, Gardner said that the county had adopted a requirement she proposed for one-to-one replacement of every tree cut for development.

“For a couple years, we actually gained a little forest,” she recalled. County data show a net 41-acre increase from 2008 to 2011, when that provision was in effect.

After she left office, she said, the commissioners eased that requirement. Elected county executive in 2014, she made an unsuccessful run at reinstating it a few years ago after learning that a controversial clearcut of 80 woodland acres would not have to be replaced or mitigated under the existing law.

Forest loss in Frederick has lessened in recent years, county data show, but Gardner said that’s not good enough.

“My conclusion is that one-to-one replacement still is the only approach that guarantees no net loss to forests,” she said. She said she plans to introduce legislation early next year.

Ben Alexandro, clean water program director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said he’s been working with local activists in all three counties to promote forest protections and hopes to do more.

After Frederick, he said, he’s eyeing Baltimore County. A study several years ago showed the existing law wasn’t protecting large woodlands there. The county’s chief sustainability officer is Steve Lafferty, a former county delegate who pushed for forest conservation reform.

“On a state level, we’ve been frustrated that we can’t even get common sense fixes,” Alexandro said. “Where things can really move is in the counties.”