ANNAPOLIS -- Demonstrating the increasing popularity of environmental issues among legislators, the House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved yesterday a Senate bill designed to protect Maryland's remaining forests from the chain saws and bulldozers of developers.
Introduced at the request of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and approved 121-14, the heavily amended measure now is headed for a joint conference committee where Senate conferees hope to convince their House counterparts to accept strengthening amendments.
But Delegate Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee that sent the bill to the House floor, was not in a compromising mood. He said there was no need for another meeting, suggesting that both he and the governor's office were "happy with the bill" as it was.
"This is the best we can get this year," said Mr. Guns, who found it personally difficult to push for a bill controlling land use that is politically unpopular in his Eastern Shore district.
Half of the 14 votes against the bill came from Eastern Shore delegates, plus four others from Harford County.
"I was anticipating more than 14 votes against it," he said, admitting surprise that the measure was only briefly debated on the House floor.
Jane Nishida, a legislative aide to the governor, said the administration was content with the compromise amendments adopted by the House committee at Mr. Guns' direction.
But Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, co-sponsor of the stronger Senate version of the bill, said, "We obviously want to tighten it up." Senate supporters, however, are unlikely to jeopardize the bill's final passage if it becomes clear the House will not negotiate any changes.
The legislation is intended to minimize the loss of trees due to development by requiring developers to replant trees in exchange for those they cut, and to plant trees on development lots that currently are barren. The effort is a recognition that trees not only have aesthetic value but also serve as filters that contribute to cleaner water and air, cool the earth and reduce the effects of global warming. And, their roots hold together soil and prevent erosion.
The bill establishes minimum "threshold" levels for the preservation of trees on tracts to be developed, with the percentage depending on the zoning. The measure requires developers to replant trees elsewhere on the tract in exchange for those they must cut. If that is not practical, they must replant them elsewhere in the same county or watershed. If that, too, is impossible, then the developer must pay a fee into a reforestation fund.
The Senate version of the bill set lower thresholds for when developers would have to begin replacing trees, at a rate of two for every one cut. The Senate version also would require a half acre of trees to be replanted for every acre cut up to the zTC threshold, while the House version calls for only a quarter acre to be replanted for each acre cut.
The Senate proposal also would require developers who decide to pay into the reforestation fund rather than replant to pay $6,534 per acre, compared with $4,356 per acre under the House version.
Opponents of the bill said they were concerned the replanting or fee requirements will increase the cost of housing, a problem supporters acknowledge but say is worth it to save the state's steadily declining tree cover.