After a miscarriage last year, the tree preservation law the County Council gave birth to last week should help Harford avoid the problems that have plagued tree conservation efforts in the Baltimore-Washington area.
But the measure will take a year or more to begin slowing the loss of trees in the county, as exempt developments make theirway through the planning and construction pipeline.
The law builds on the basic tree retention and replanting goals former councilman Frederick J. Hatem sought last year before he withdrew his bill after heavy criticism from developers. But the law passedlast week also includes provisions patterned after a state bill aimed at protecting private property rights.
The measure passed Tuesday, drafted by Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, included more than 25 amendments, some of which broadened the options for reforesting trees in some cases where planting new trees or "aforestation" would have been required and extending a grandfather clause that exempted some developments caught up in the county permit approval process.
"The development and building industry is generally pleased with the changes that were made," said Bel Air attorney Frank Hertsch,who represented the building community on the county's tree preservation committee.
More than 70 development projects already planned will be exempt from the new law, and the county Planning and Zoning office has been busy this month considering requests for filing extensions on other projects before the bill takes effect Dec. 31.
The projects already in the pipeline include plans for more than 9,100 single-family homes, 7,500 town houses and 7,600 apartments and condominiums, many of which have already been completed or started.
"It's possible that next spring developments will begin to be planned differently," county environmental planner Rich Hall said.
Builders andconservationists agree that the law will change development patterns-- a goal that has eluded planners in many other local jurisdictions.
Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, widely regarded as a pioneerin tree preservation, has had only limited success, Fairfax County arborist Rich Hoff said last week.
"What we're looking for is that no more land than is necessary is cleared for development," he said.
But Fairfax has been hampered by its limited regulatory powers andthe Virginia General Assembly has not passed enabling legislation for tree preservation similar to what Harford has adopted.
Fairfax has been limited to saving trees by enforcing erosion and sediment-control measures on the books for almost two decades.
"Yes, there have been a lot of trees coming down and people remind me of that all the time," Hoff said, "But we can't stop someone from building when they have the zoning for that use."
Although Harford's entire GeneralAssembly delegation opposed the state tree bill this year, the measure required each county to pass local laws that meet or exceed the new standards.
"We have a good bill. It's better than the state bill," said Wilfred Hathaway, president of the Maryland Association of Forest Conservancy District Boards.
He praised the county's stricterpreservation provisions, which will require builders to save 30 percent of trees found in high-density residential tracts.
The same requirement is one of the points most strongly resisted by developers, Hertsch said.
"Retention would force site design based essentiallyon what is a random placement of trees by previous owners," he said.Developers argue that it makes more sense to allow more flexibility to replant new trees.
The new county law requires developers to reforest one-fourth of every acre of trees that are cut down on lots 40,000 square feet or larger. But it also includes a fee loophole for builders who cannot find suitable planting sites.
Developers can pay $17,424 per acre of cleared trees for the county to take responsibility to do the planting either on public property or private land purchased for that purpose.
The law also provides that the money be returned to the builder if the county cannot find a place to plant within three years. The state law dictates holding the money only one year.
But the fee option is not expected to be used very often, thusavoiding the situation in Anne Arundel County, where a wetlands preservation measure has built up a $500,000 kitty without a single tree planted in the past three years.
"I'd be surprised if it generatesmore than $50,000 a year," Hertsch said of the Harford law. "That would be high."
Hathaway agreed, saying that Harford has plenty of sites available for planting trees.
PROJECTS EXEMPT FROM TREE LAW
Projects exempt from tree law
Harford County's new tree preservation law will not apply to developments already in the planning and construction pipeline. The 15 largest exempt projects include:
* Riverside in Belcamp -- 3,522 planned units
* Greenbriar Hills in Bel Air -- 2,551 planned units
* Constant Friendship in Abingdon -- 2,350 planned units
* Forest Lake in Rock Spring -- 1,137 planned units
* Woodbridge Center in Edgewood -- 1,170 planned units
* BoxHill South in Abingdon -- 2,130 planned units
* Hunters Run in Bel Air -- 722 planned units
* Brentwood Park in Bel Air -- 835 planned units
* Glenangus in Bel Air -- 628 units
* Country Walk inBel Air -- 561 units
* Campus Lakes in Churchville -- 537 plannedunits
* Durham Manor in Rock Spring -- 530 planned units
* Villages of Thomas Run in Bel Air -- 530 planned units
* Laurel Valley in Abingdon -- 512 planned units