The following first appeared in the Capital Gazette.
Thanks to the controversial Crystal Spring development project, Annapolis residents probably know more than most Marylanders about the state Forest Conservation Act, or FCA. They know that in a battle to save trees, the law can feel about as forceful as a wiffle ball bat.
Enacted in 1991, the law is intended to minimize how much forest a developer cuts down. The Crystal Spring developers proposed to clear about half of the woods on the property on the ironically named Forest Drive. They argued the FCA allows such large clearance.
The City of Annapolis is rewriting its own forest conservation ordinance, so it is stronger than the state law.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation feels the state law itself needs to be strengthened. It's time for Anne Arundel County and other jurisdictions across Maryland to realize the law isn't working as intended. Too much forest is coming down and not being replaced. State records show Maryland lost a net 14,480 acres of forest to development projects in the past eight years.
Inspired by Annapolis' effort, CBF is pushing the state legislature to amend the FCA. Just as it was passionate citizens from the Annapolis Neck, Eastport, and other neighborhoods in and outside Annapolis who educated city officials, we now need Marylanders to tell their state delegates and senators they support Senate Bill 365 and House Bill 599.
The legislation, scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the House Transportation and the Environment Committee (with a rally at Lawyers Mall beforehand), would require developers to replant an acre of forest for each acre they cut down. It also would give local governments flexibility to charge builders higher fees when they claim they can't replant. Currently, those fees are so low in some places that they don't cover the cost of replanting.
The Crystal Spring project got substantial scrutiny in the past few years for proposing to cut down 43 acres of forest. But development projects beyond the city limits in Anne Arundel have received little scrutiny as they cut down forest—410 acres in fiscal 2016, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
It's difficult to determine the total forest loss to development in Anne Arundel over a longer period. The county did not submit annual reports about its FCA implementation in five of the past eight years. The reports are required by the FCA. Maryland did not enforce the reporting requirement.
But the three reports available show Anne Arundel County allowed builders to clear an average of about 45 percent of all forests on their properties prior to construction, or 682 acres. The county required builders to replant only 61 acres in those years.
Many Anne Arundel developers have paid the fee-in-lieu instead of replanting what they cut. It's unclear how much of those funds the county has used to replant trees that were cleared.
The state legislation, SB 365 and HB 599, offers a better solution: require developers to replant more than they do now and give localities the right to charge higher fees if developers want to avoid replanting. Taken together, these changes will finally reflect the true value of trees to Anne Arundel citizens.
Forests provide enormous health, environmental, and economic benefits to communities. A single acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide annually, and produces enough oxygen in a day to support 18 people, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. A 2015 study by the Low Impact Development Center in Beltsville calculated the forests of Prince George's County provide at least $12 billion in public benefits. Anne Arundel forests likely provide comparable services.
Are we prepared to pay the piper for losing those benefits?
Let forests continue to help us. Support SB 365 and HB 599.