In a win for forest protections and clean water, a Harford County judge today ruled in favor of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) in a lawsuit against a developer that was proposing to clear about 220 acres of forest, including 49 large and ecologically valuable trees, to build warehouses.
Judge Diane Adkins-Tobin found that neither Harford County nor the developer, BTC II I-95 Logistics Center LLC and Harford Investors LLP, provided a factual basis for granting the developer a waiver from the requirements of Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act to clear the forested land known locally as Abingdon Woods.
The law requires that developers preserve large and mature trees, known as specimen trees, and forested land, unless preservation would deprive the property owners of rights “commonly enjoyed by others.” If so, a property owner could request a waiver from the forest protection requirements and the county could evaluate that request. In this case, the judge found that Harford County never provided any factual basis as to how the developer would be deprived of their property rights by following forest retention requirements in state law.
Judge Adkins-Tobin ruled that Harford County must now review its previous findings and, if it can, provide facts as to why the county granted the developer the waiver from the Forest Conservation Act requirements. The ruling sends a message to jurisdictions and developers in Maryland that boilerplate language granting variances to sidestep Forest Conservation Act requirements is unlawful.
CBF has been pursuing this case through the different levels of Maryland’s judicial system since first bringing the lawsuit in 2019. In 2022, CBF secured a landmark ruling from Maryland’s Supreme Court that found forest conservation plans for development projects can be legally challenged after being approved. Prior to that ruling, citizens interested in challenging forest conservation plans had to wait until the full site plan for a project was approved. That ruling along with the one made today should give citizens more power to quickly challenge deficient planning department decisions that give developers the ability to sidestep state forest protections.
CBF also secured a halt and then an injunction to stop tree clearing at the Abingdon Woods site in Sept. 2022 after the developer began clearing trees at the site in July. More than half of the specimen trees were cleared after the county granted a grading permit for the site even though this lawsuit was moving through the court system. CBF secured the halt and later the injunction after the Maryland Supreme Court ruling was issued in late August. CBF’s immediate attempt to stop the cutting in July was unsuccessful in court until the Maryland Supreme Court ruling was released. It’s now unclear how the county can make the case that the trees should or should not be removed when many have already been cleared.
CBF’s Director of Litigation Paul Smail issued the following statement in response to the ruling:
“This is a major victory for citizens to ensure that the Forest Conservation Act in Maryland can be used to protect forested land from unceasing encroachment by developers. The judge’s ruling sends a message to counties and developers that there must be a clear factual basis for granting waivers from the state’s requirements to protect forested land.
“Most developers won’t suffer hardship by preserving forests and large trees that benefit residents' physical and mental health, the enjoyment of their property, and improve water quality. That's why we’re urging government agencies to follow the law, do the research and analysis, and if they must grant a waiver to a developer, make sure they provide a factual basis and required findings as to why this benefit was provided to the developer and not to other property owners.
“In this specific case, we remain concerned that the developer cleared many of the specimen trees that the Forest Conservation Act would have protected had the law been followed. Those trees were cleared while this case was being adjudicated, despite attempts by CBF to halt the destruction. We’re now evaluating what options we may have to correct this wrong.”