County may delay vote on tree law Council uncertain on program's cost

January 18, 1993|By Larry Carson and Timothy B. Wheeler | Larry Carson and Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writers

A reluctant Baltimore County Council is facing a vote tomorrow on what many county officials see as yet another new, unfunded, state-mandated program -- reforestation.

Meanwhile, Anne Arundel County officials are still mulling what it will take to strengthen that county's 1990 tree preservation ordinance to comply with the Forest Conservation Act.

The law, adopted by the General Assembly in 1991, requires that builders either leave from 15 percent to 50 percent of lots over 1 acre in trees, replace trees they cut down beyond the required minimum, or pay up to $4,300 an acre into a public fund to pay for planting trees elsewhere. Builders also may be required to plant trees on empty lots.

The state required all Maryland subdivisions to adopt a local version of the law by Dec. 31, 1992, which means that Anne Arundel and Baltimore County are technically in violation. Although there is no penalty for missing the deadline, county officials say some developments could be delayed briefly because of uncertainty over the reforestation requirements.

But Baltimore County Council Chairman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, D-3rd, said that a vote on the new law might be postponed again, for two more weeks.

In this second year of cuts in state aid to local government, with Baltimore County facing the need to lay off workers, officials aren't happy about state-mandated laws that don't come with money attached.

The cost of administering the reforestation law is not known, and Merreen E. Kelly, the county administrative officer, couldn't offer a firm cost estimate at last week's council work session. Mr. Ruppersberger threatened to delay a final vote beyond tomorrow night's scheduled meeting if no estimate is received by then.

Mr. Kelly said that the Hayden administration wouldn't be proposing the law if it weren't required by the state. Several council members voiced reservations, too.

"I'm worried about adding to the cost of a house," said Councilman William A. Howard IV, R-6th, after county environmental officials said that the law could add $1,000 to the cost of a building lot in some circumstances.

Mr. Ruppersberger called it "a good bill, but bad timing," coming in the midst of the recession as the county is looking for ways to make up for a $31.7 million budget shortfall this year.

County environmental director J. James Dieter told the council that there are more forests in the county now than there were in the 1920s, largely because many rural farm fields have been left fallow and have sprouted new trees.

However, he said, trees disappeared rapidly in the urbanized areas of the county that developed after the end of World War II.

Several council members, including Catonsville's Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, and Essex's Vincent J. Gardina, D-5th, said that they support the bill. Mr. Gardina said that more trees can prevent silt runoff and cut down on the need for expensive dredging of county waterways.

Anne Arundel, whose tree preservation ordinance was a model for the state law, has been requiring trees be spared or replaced since 1990. But now the county must tighten its local requirements to comply with the state law, said Rodney L. Banks, an environmental planner.

Although the county law is more stringent in some respects, it does not now require planting trees on open land, Mr. Banks said, nor does it require as much woodland to be retained in rural areas or on commercial and industrial sites.

Mr. Banks said that he did not know how much the changes in the county's program would cost.

Developers initially complained about the county's tree preservation requirement, he said, but "they've come to learn to live with it."

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