Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Advocates seek more protection for trees on private lots

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Potomac resident Don Smith said he moved to his wooded property that borders the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal for the scenic beauty. Trees, he said, are an integral part of the area’s natural aesthetic.

‘‘It’s heaven,” he said. ‘‘The trees and the canal are the things I love.”

That’s why, one day in December, Smith was dismayed to discover that his neighbor was cutting large trees on his property.

‘‘To cut trees without having to is very unfortunate,” Smith said. ‘‘It’s very sad.”

Potomac residents like Smith are raising concerns that more regulation is needed for saving individual trees on smaller, private plots of land. Currently in Montgomery County, there are no rules that govern the conservation of such trees, said Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac.

Berliner, along with Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park have participated in an informal task force to look at the needs of preserving individual trees. The proposed tree ordinance, which is still being developed and should be introduced within the next six months, would require homeowners to get permission from the county before cutting down healthy trees.

While Montgomery County does currently have a Forest Conservation Law that requires the replacement of a certain percentage of cut trees, it currently only applies to lots that are 40,000 square feet — just short of one acre — or more.

‘‘I like to see this as a way to fill the hole that the Forest Conservation Law leaves behind,” said environmental advocate Ginny Barnes, president of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.

The issue of particular concern in wooded Potomac, where residents say homeowners can have a collective impact on the decrease of forest cover in Montgomery County. Twenty-eight percent of the county consisted of forest in 2000, compared to 45 percent in 1973, according to a Montgomery County forest preservation task force.

‘‘It’s important as more of the area becomes developed,” said Kate Anderson, a Potomac area environmental advocate. Anderson said her property abuts a wooded area shared by four or five homeowners that is vulnerable to depletion should even one homeowner decide to cut down trees.

Trees on individual lots are also at risk in light of infill development, advocates say.

‘‘Pretty soon, the whole character of the community is changed,” Barnes said.

Some towns in Montgomery County, including Takoma Park, have an existing tree ordinance for private lots.

‘‘Other communities throughout the country and in Montgomery County have addressed this issue,” Berliner said. ‘‘We’re trying to take the best of those approaches.”

For some, however, such an ordinance would come uncomfortably close to violating individual property rights.

‘‘There’s a legitimate question with respect to the right of the individual property owner versus the larger societal and community interest in trees,” Berliner said. ‘‘We fully expect some pushback.”

Berliner said he is accepting community input through the task force, which includes residents and developers. The public will have opportunity to comment on the proposed legislation after it is drafted, Berliner said.

Potomac resident Aris Mardirossian, who recently reached an agreement with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to cut down four nut trees on his River Road property to which he said his children are allergic, said he supports the plan. But he also said that homeowners should be afforded some sense of property about the trees on their land.

‘‘If it’s done correctly, I think it’s a good idea,” Mardirossian said. ‘‘But you can’t direct every aspect of people’s lives so much that people get tired and leave Montgomery County.”

Mardirossian originally requested cutting more than 50 trees on the property.

Barnes said that the proposal for a tree ordinance shouldn’t interfere with individual property rights.

‘‘I can’t go and build a guest house in my backyard without seeking permission [from the county],” she said. ‘‘I don’t see this as being any different.”