A fee grows where trees no longer do Reforestation law vs. asphalt reality

November 11, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Not a single tree grows on the 69,000-square-foot parcel at Eastern Avenue and North Point Boulevard. There hasn't been a tree there for more than 30 years. It's part of an asphalt parking lot that serves Eastpoint Mall.

James T. Dresher Jr. wants to build a family-style steakhouse on FTC that piece of asphalt. He will spend $20,000 to meet Baltimore County's strict landscaping standards. This includes planting 41 trees, 332 shrubs and 415 perennials. No problem there.

But there is also the matter of the county's forest conservation law. It was designed to require developers to replace trees they destroy. Although there's no forest on the parking lot, the law requires Mr. Dresher to pay an additional $4,000 to the county's reforestation fund to replace trees he isn't cutting down.

Mr. Dresher thinks this is unfair. The Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce thinks this is unfair, and Councilman Donald C. Mason, D-7th, thinks it's unfair.

Mr. Mason, with the chamber's backing, wants to amend the forest conservation law to exempt redevelopment projects on "impervious" surfaces such as asphalt, as well as those built on treeless land.

Although some council members want Mr. Mason to better define re-development, especially as it pertains to unforested land, his bill appears to have the votes to pass Monday night.

But the legislation could put the county in conflict with state regulations. And the debate is likely to highlight fundamental philosophical differences between the business community and environmentalists.

From an economic standpoint, developers say, the current law works against attempts to revitalize older areas. And, they say, they shouldn't pay for damage they aren't doing.

Environmental groups, who fought developers for years to win a statewide forest conservation law in 1990, don't want to see the local laws that resulted from it riddled with loopholes. They say the law was intended to replace forests that were cut down in the past, as well as those cut down today.

The County Council adopted its forest conservation law last January to meet a deadline from the Department of Natural Resources. Under the terms of the state law, the department required each jurisdiction to pass a local forest conservation act or come under the state reforestation law.

Complicated formula

Baltimore County's forest conservation act sets up a complicated formula for developments of 40,000 square feet (about an acre) or more. It requires builders to replace trees they cut down by replanting on their own site or some other approved location. Instead of replacing trees themselves, developers may choose to pay into a county tree-planting fund.

The law also requires developers to plant trees or pay into the fund even if their project did not require tree cutting.

The state law charges developers 10 cents per square foot for forestation. The tougher Baltimore County law charges 40 cents.

Mr. Mason said this burden makes it difficult to encourage redevelopment in older, economically depressed areas. Mr. Dresher's restaurant, he noted, would add 150 jobs to the recession-hit blue-collar communities of Essex and Dundalk.

"The end result of Mr. Mason's bill," said Steven K. Broyles, president of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, "is that it would encourage developers to look at already developed sites rather than virgin land where older forest might have to be cut."

But the effect of the law goes beyond older communities.

Mr. Broyles, a land development engineer, said he had a client who wanted to build three houses on 80 acres of open farmland in northern Baltimore County. The land would have cost the developer $200,000. The forest conservation law would have have cost the developer an additional $160,000.

"Needless to say, my client didn't go through with the deal," said Mr. Broyles.

'I'm adding trees'

Mr. Dresher said he wouldn't mind paying into the fund if he were clearing away forested land for his restaurant.

"But requiring me to pay when I'm not cutting down one single tree, I feel, is punitive," he said. "I'm adding trees where there haven't been trees for decades."

On the other side, Rod Coggins, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, likes the county law just the way it is.

"I think it's admirable that the county chose to have a stronger law, and any attempt to alter it will just open up loopholes," he said.

Mr. Coggins and other environmentalists contend that the law is intended to make up, in part, for decades of forest cutting with little or no reforestation.

"That is the philosophy behind making our afforestation provision of the law stronger," said J. James Dieter, director of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

Under the gun

Mr. Mason said the council was under the gun to meet the state deadline when it passed the current law and didn't get a chance to consider it properly.

If the council approves Mr. Mason's bill, it will still need approval from the state Department of Natural Resources. DNR officials have said local forest conservation laws can't be weaker than the state law.

"I think we would view this exception as making the Baltimore County law weaker than the state law," said Tod Ericson, Central Maryland coordinator for DNR's Forest Conservation Program.

To counter this, Mr. Mason has persuaded state Del. E. Farrell Maddox, D-Baltimore Co., to offer the same amendment to the state law.

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