Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Royce Hanson: Strengthen forest conservation law, but don’t wield too broad an axe

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Since 1992, Montgomery County — like all Maryland counties — has required developers to conserve forests. By doing so, we help slow storm water runoff and flooding, provide shelter and habitat for wildlife, improve air quality and offset the heat generated by development, which reduces global warming.

Beyond their environmental benefits, forests hold a special appeal. We enjoy their shade, scenery and recreational opportunities.

The county Planning Board knows our residents care about forests, and we’re determined to protect them. That’s why we’ve sent a new, stronger version of the county Forest Conservation Law to the County Council for consideration and, we hope, approval in the coming weeks.

You can learn more about our proposed law at a Jan. 10 League of Women Voters forum in Rockville, where I’ve been invited to present the Planning Board’s perspective on forest conservation.

Our new law would require that at least 5 percent more forest be saved when land is developed. While the exact percentage would vary, depending on the size and intended use on the land, the bottom line is that we’d protect more forest on site.

The law also would require better care of newly planted forests, which we require when on-site conservation isn’t feasible. Our law now requires property owners to maintain new plantings for two years, unless they are located in Special Protection Areas — environmentally sensitive zones where new plants must be maintained for five years.

Our experience has shown that longer periods of care result in better tree survival and fewer problems with invasive, non-native plants. With that in mind, we’re proposing that all new plantings would have to be maintained for five years, improving the chances that young forests will thrive.

Not every patch of trees is a forest. The law defines a forest as consisting of at least 10,000 square feet with at least 100 trees per acre, 50 percent of which are greater than 2 inches in diameter. It’s important to keep in mind that our Forest Conservation Law governs conservation of forests, not individual trees. The County Council is working on a separate tree protection ordinance. We agree that drafting separate laws to regulate two different resources makes the most sense because there is a big difference between protecting a forest stand and regulating the removal of individual trees in someone’s yard.

Our law protects forests on approximately 12 percent of parcels in the county, or more than 250,000 properties.

That’s a lot of forest.

Some suggest that we take conservation even further, by reducing the 40,000-square-feet minimum lot size that triggers forest protection measures. However, we want to strike a balance between conservation and property rights.

If we were to require forest conservation on smaller parcels, such as those measuring 10,000 square feet, (which, by definition, is not a forest) we would affect 50 percent of Montgomery County properties. That would mean many more individual homeowners would need to file a forest conservation plan before starting any land-disturbing activities.

Consider having to spend at least $5,000 in engineering fees before even breaking ground.

Meanwhile, the extra enforcement required if we were to change the minimum parcel sizes would force our agency to quadruple its environmental planning staff and raise fees to offset the additional staff necessary to implement and enforce the Forest Conservation Law.

Our law provides a middle ground among competing interests. We have balanced those interests with a common-sense measure that protects forests and the environment without over-regulating residents.

The other aspect of our new law is a much-needed clarification of what the law covers and to whom it applies. The revisions make it clear how different types of property owners, from prospective developers with 40,000-square-foot lots to farmers, can comply.

It’s important — for us and our grandchildren — that we maintain and enhance our county’s forested areas. The Planning Board’s proposed law does that. We look forward to working with the County Council to make our law a reality.

Royce Hanson is the chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

If you go

A panel of county officials and environmental and building advocates will discuss pending changes to the Forest Conservation Law during the League of Women Voters’ public forum.

It will be begin at 7 p.m. Thursday in the County Council Office Building, seventh floor, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville.