Light in the Forest?

July 18, 1993

Preventing the loss of Maryland forestlands has long been a legislative preoccupation, for good reason. Despite all the developer rhetoric about the amenity value of trees, leveling a wooded building site is a lot easier than trying to construct houses in the midst of a standing grove.

Much of the controversy between developers and tree-huggers has centered around the complex regulations drawn up for the Forest Conservation Act that went into effect this year. Builders must count trees on the property and preserve or replant up to 50 percent of the stand. The aim is to stem the annual loss of 10,000 acres of woodlands.

Now the furor has shifted to a 30-year-old state law that has quietly protected 150,000 acres of private woodlands through tax incentives. Tax assessments are frozen for wooded property placed under 15- and 20-year easements in the Forest Conservation and Management Program.

But under a 1988 amendment, owners must pay higher taxes retroactively if they remove property from the agreement. For an Annapolis couple that sold an acre of their committed land, the higher tax bill would be collected for 18 years back. They sued the state to overturn these past tax penalties. The couple claims the state did not inform them of this important change, despite written requests.

Maryland argues that stripping the law of retroactive tax penalties would encourage landowners to keep forest areas in the program for tax benefits only until they could sell at a big profit, paying only a single year's higher taxes. The owners say they have been unfairly treated after keeping their 34 acres as untouched forest for 17 years.

Both sides charge the contract was broken: the state significantly changed the law two years after the couple renewed their contract in 1986 for 20 more years; the couple sold 1.2 acres of protected land for $184,000 in 1989.

A compromise would seem more than warranted, rather than forcing the issue to a court decision that could jeopardize an important conservation program or embitter good-intentioned citizens about the untrustworthy nature of government.

True, most of the 1,100 participants in the forest management program would not likely withdraw their land if the state should lose. Many are philosophically committed to preserving the valuable natural woodlands. But it could cause some property owners to refuse to renew their long-term pledges, and make them more susceptible to the siren song of development dollars.

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