The Friendswood Development Corp. of Houston is turning out to be no friend to Anne Arundel County.
The developer was supposed to be building South River Colony, a 1,400-acre project complete with golf course, commercial center and 900 homes. Now, after stripping 80 acres of trees, it's pulling out and taking its money some place "where we're more confident we'll get a return." So long, Friendswood said, see you FTC in two years, when the economy improves -- maybe.
In the meantime, South County residents are left with a stunning panorama of barren earth and the question of what can be done about it.
Not much, sad to say. Because plans for South River Colony were in the works before the county passed its 1990 tree conservation legislation, South River Colony was exempted from that law, which requires builders to preserve a certain amount of trees and replace those they cut down. (Many other projects comprising thousands of acres, including Odenton's Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks communities, also were exempted.) Friendswood has no legal obligation to plant a single sapling on the ground it just denuded.
Of course, there's no law saying that the company couldn't replace some of the trees it has cut down. The local economy was bad enough last summer, when Friendswood started chopping away, that the company should have known better than to start building a golf course and shopping center. It would be nice if, out of a sense of corporate responsibility, Friendswood tried to make amends by fulfilling the terms of the county tree ordinance on its own.
The Friendswood fiasco makes it clear that, although the Anne Arundel tree ordinance is a good, tough law, it is somewhat limited because it does nothing to prevent developers from clearing huge parcels of land at one time.
Environmental planners agree that phased-in tree clearance is the ultimate way to prevent future South River Colonys. Builders would be allowed to clear, say, only 20 to 50 acres at a time; only after that land was stabilized and developed could companies clear another section.
Sadly, no such law exists at the state or county level, in Anne Arundel or any other jurisdiction. What happened with Friendswood makes this a good time for the county to consider this as the next step toward making development compatible with the environment.