A bill passed last week to preserve Montgomery County’s tree canopy doesn’t just replace those that are cut down, but also requires planting new trees where they never existed in the first place, a change suggested by the building industry.
But lawmakers opted to require more trees than builders suggested, which some say is the same as imposing a fee.
The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed its tree canopy conservation bill July 23 with a goal of stemming the reduction in the canopy that often accompanies in-fill development.
About 51 percent of the county’s land is covered by a canopy of trees, but depending where you are in Montgomery, that canopy can be thick or thin.
The new law, which takes effect in March, would require those who obtain a sediment control permit to plant enough trees on their lot to cover 50 percent of the area being developed or to pay the equivalent cost of the trees to the county.
Stan Edwards, chief of the county Division of Environmental Policy and Compliance in the Department of Environmental Protection, said the county had originally proposed a bill that would only deal with replacing the canopy that was “disturbed.” But Renewing Montgomery, an initiative of neighborhood builders, suggested making all properties, regardless of existing trees, subject to the law.
As approved, the law does not just replace trees that are removed from a lot for development.
“It applies even when no tree was cut down and even when no tree was on the site to begin with,” said Michael Faden, the council’s senior legislative attorney.
The county went along with the change, but disagreed with builders on how many trees it would take to have half the area covered by a mature canopy, Edwards said.
Based on data analyzed by the county, Edwards said, the environmental division found that only one in three trees survived to become a mature tree and suggested that the county require more trees to be planted than what builders suggested.
The council decided to require approximately triple the trees proposed by builders.
For lots with up to 6,000 square feet being developed, that would mean planting three shade trees instead of one. For an area up to 40,000 square feet, 15 shade trees would be required, not six.
Shade trees are those that grow taller than 50 feet.
S. Robert Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, disputed the county’s assertion that only one in three trees will survive. The association is a nonprofit trade organization representing builders in Maryland.
Citing studies in Philadelphia and New York, he said trees have been proven survive their first year at a rate closer to 90 percent and that trees on private lots have a greater chance of surviving than those along streets because of the care given by owners.
Renewing Montgomery said in a July 2 letter to the council that about 85 percent of trees planted by builders actually survive.
Kaufman said the legislation was emotionally, not rationally, crafted and is tantamount to a fee.
If all of the required trees cannot be put on a given lot, the county will require builders to pay $250 per tree into a special fund for planting trees in other parts of the county where few currently exist.
Kaufman said county regulations for stormwater management and other provisions in the new canopy law — such as the distance between each tree — will make it nearly impossible for builders to put every required tree on a lot. As a result, they will have to pay the for the remaining trees in the form of a fee.
“Don’t make us try to meet a standard you already know we can’t meet on the site,” he said.
When builders develop a site, Kaufman said, the county’s stormwater management law often requires removing all existing trees to make way for dry wells and other means of containing runoff.
It can cost as much as $8,000 to remove an existing mature tree.
Builders value trees as much as county lawmakers and environmental activists do, Kaufman said, as they add value to a site.
If the county wanted to preserve its canopy, it would fix the stormwater regulations that require builders to remove existing trees and let more of the trees already in the ground stay there, he said.