Not seeing the forest for the fees

November 12, 1993

Baltimore County suffers from a reputation for being unfriendly to business. To some degree, that image is owed to the county's vigorous protection of its natural resources, particularly the green splendor of the valleys in the north county.

This paper has adamantly supported laws that guard those resources from harmful development. Just as strongly, though, we object to imprudent controls that hinder business, such as the county environmental regulation that would block James T. Dresher Jr. from building a restaurant on an asphalt parking lot at Eastpoint Mall.

Mr. Dresher has no problem with county landscaping rules that would require him to spend $20,000 to plant trees, shrubs and perennials at the site. But he rightly complains about the county law that would make him pay an extra $4,000 to the local reforestation fund, which was established last January to replace trees cut down for construction projects. Mr. Dresher argues it would be unfair to make him contribute to a tree-replacement fund when he wouldn't be touching even one existing tree -- not to mention after shelling out thousands of dollars to add trees, shrubs and flowers to what is now a lifeless stretch of asphalt.

This ludicrous predicament hardly improves the county's reputation as a bad place in which to do business. That's why County Councilman Donald Mason, D-7th, has introduced legislation to waive the reforestation fees for any developer building on an impervious surface (as in Mr. Dresher's case) or on previously developed, treeless land. The council should approve this measure when it meets Monday night. The council members would thus correct their work of a year ago when they passed the current, state-mandated reforestation law without adequately studying it for flaws. If state officials dispute the bill, the county's legislative delegation is ready with a measure to make the exemption effective statewide.

Environmentalists may howl at this as a loophole in a strong law. But they fail to see the forest for the trees. Projects such as Mr. Dresher's are what they've been seeking: more economic growth in areas that have already been developed, such as the urbanized, job-hungry sections of the east county, rather than increased suburban sprawl. Virgin land would then be spared the construction of new buildings, roads and other environment-threatening amenities. And for Baltimore County's sake, business people might begin to feel that the local government isn't so unfriendly after all.

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