A few weeks ago the bulldozers went to work razing two old houses behind the building where our newspaper office is located in Bel Air. The staff watched the destruction and did not lament the passing of these two homely structures to make way for a medical office building.
But more than a few in the office expressed worry that an old crabapple tree on the property, its broad spanned bows in extraordinary pink blossom, would suffer the same fate.
A reporter and an artist pledged to strap themselves to the tree to prevent its destruction should that day come. No one has arrived with a chain saw yet to clear trees off the land, but the staff has turned vigilant to remain watchful of the tree.
The point is this: People have an almost primitive affection for trees, and it is mature trees that have the mystery and majesty to inspire us, like the old shady crab apple.
When old trees are felled, whether by man or nature, something turns most of us sad.
And so it is that the tree preservation bill before the County Council, written by freshman member Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, probably strikes a chord of relief in those of us who enjoy the simple, poetic company of old trees and forests.
The bill would bring an aesthetic spirit to planning in this county that could set the tone for future changes in how Harford manages growth.
The proposal does not strike that same chord in many in the county's development industry. Some of these critics are looking, unfortunately, only as far as their own pockets -- though underthe veil of looking out for Joe and Sally Homebuyer.
Perhaps the most important element to be found in the Pierno bill is that it requires land developers to retain trees on property they plan to develop.
The bill has been labeled by the press and critics as being "stricter" than a state tree bill scheduled to take effect in 1993.
But that label is something of a misnomer.
Pierno's bill differs from the state bill -- which to my mind is a pretty weak answer to a dangerous, unchecked trend of vast and rapid tree-clearing in Maryland that has 331,000 acres of forested lands projected for clearing by 2020.
The state bill's emphasis is what's called reforestation; that is, replanting trees that are cleared.
One problem with this tact is that seedlings are what are planted as replacements, and they takea great deal more maintenance to ensure survival than do mature trees. They also take many years of growth before doing the jobs of soil runoff control and the removal of air pollutants that older trees excel at.
Under the state bill, developers of large land tracts must replant one quarter of the trees cut down on a property -- or they can choose not to replant trees but pay money into a planting fund to be managed by the state. Does anyone think the state will adequately use the fund money to buy and plant trees? And where in the heck are they going to plant all these seedlings, anyway?
The Harford bill has a thankfully different focus: Preserve trees that exist.
Yes, doing so may raise the cost of land development -- a cost that will inevitably be passed on to homebuyers. Some Harford developers at workshops on Pierno's proposal argued that any increase in new-home priceswill keep some buyers out of the market.
That will undoubtedly occur. But these higher costs could be balanced if developers and elected officials put the heat on state lawmakers to reduce the cost that really keeps many buyers locked out of the market: closing costs. Maryland's are among the highest in the nation.
Developers must be reminded that there is a cost in the destruction of mature trees. It's a cost that is not as easy to see as the price on a sales contract, but it exists and is compelling nonetheless.
It's called pollution.We tend to give controlling it lip service.
Mature trees act as great protectors of watersheds and scrubbers of the air. They prevent soil from eroding and washing into streams and the Chesapeake Bay andthey remove pollutants from the air.
The bay's health still hangsin the balance, in the opinions of a lot of bay experts. Soil erosion from land development has contributed heavily in the past decade tothe bay's decline.
And Harford's auto-dependent population boom in the past five years has had a deleterious effect on local air quality.
Without some measures enacted soon to curb tree-cutting on land for development and farming, the future for trees looks bleak -- even with the state bill in all its weakness on the way.
Consider: The state Office of Planning has estimated that Harford could lose 16,556 acres of forested land and 16,388 acres of farmland to development by 2020.
Figures provided by the office show that of Harford's 280,816 acres, 105,673 acres were forested lands in 1985.
By 1990 that number had dropped to about 101,290. That's nearly 900 acres of forested land cleared each year over the past five years.
What havethese once-beautiful tracts of land been replaced with? Houses, roads, shopping centers and parking lots, none of which does a very good job of removing pollutants from the air or preventing soil and chemicals from washing into the streams and Chesapeake Bay.
A mature tree can do these jobs.
But it needs our help to stick around for thework.