ANNAPOLIS -- Attempting to halt a steady loss of trees that dates to the time Colonial settlers first started cutting them down in Southern Maryland, a House committee approved legislation yesterday that would require developers to plant trees in exchange for trees they cut.
The far-reaching Schaefer administration proposal, which would apply to developments initiated by local or state governments as well those by private developers, also would require the planting of trees on sites where few or no trees existed to start with.
The House bill, a modified Senate reforestation measure, emerged from the Environmental Matters Committee on a surprisingly strong 19-4 vote. Although weaker than the Senate version, supporters uniformly endorsed it, saying it was much stronger than they had expected from the conservative House committee.
Legislators both for and against the legislation credited committee Chairman Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil -- an Eastern Shoreman not fond of such legislation -- with working out a compromise acceptable to all parties.
Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said that he was concerned by some of the House changes, but that even with the House amendments, "this is still probably the most far-reaching tree protection bill on private developers in the United States." He said that more than 90 percent of Maryland was covered in trees during Colonial times, but that now trees shade only 42 percent of the state.
The measure now goes to the full House, where approval is expected, and then to a House-Senate conference committee where differences in the bills must be worked out before the legislature's April 8 midnight adjournment.
Environmentalists have been trying for the past three years to get a tree protection measure passed, arguing that sprawl development has claimed 71,000 acres of tree cover -- or about 14,000 acres a year -- between 1985 and 1990 alone.
Not only do trees contribute aesthetically to the environment, they also serve as filters for air pollution and rain, help hold soils to prevent sediment runoff, and are considered critical to efforts to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and the state's rivers and streams.
"I think it will have a significant impact on forest conservation in the state," said Delegate Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, chairman of the House's work group on the tree bill.
Under the House version, Garrett and Allegany counties, the state's two mountainous, westernmost counties, would be exempted from the bill because each has more than 200,000 acres of trees. If tree acreage fell below that level, they would be included under the bill's provisions.
Under both the House and Senate versions of the bill, most individual homeowners would be exempted. Any construction activity conducted on single lots of any size would be exempted so long as the activity did not result in the cutting or clearing of more than 40,000 square feet -- or nearly an acre -- of forest.
But developers, government agencies or others wishing to cut 40,000 square feet of forest or more would qualify. The amount of required replanting (or original planting if the site is barren) would depend on the zoning of the parcel and the number of trees the developer wanted to cut.
Developers first would have to prepare a "forest stand delineation" that showed the location, number and species of trees on the parcel. Once that plan was accepted by a state or local government oversight agency, the developers would have to file a plan showing how they intended to conserve the site's trees.
Based on the zoning for each parcel -- such as agricultural, residential, institutional development, commercial or industrial -- a "threshold" percentage would be established. For example, under the House version, the threshold for agricultural use property would be 50 percent; for high density residential development, 20 percent.
Trees cut on a parcel up to the threshold would have to be replaced at a rate of one-quarter of an acre for every acre of trees cut. The more stringent Senate version would require replacement at a rate of half an acre for every acre cut.
Both versions agree that trees cut beyond the threshold level would have to be replaced at a rate of two acres for every acre cut.
Developers who for some reason could not replant would have to pay a fee into a reforestation fund at a rate of $4,356 per acre of trees cut, or 10 cents per square foot. The Senate version would have required a higher penalty, $6,534 per acre, or 15 cents per square foot.
"If you make the payment too low, developers will just opt to pay and clear the trees," Senator Winegrad said.