They Want To Fix An Unbroken Law

COMMENT

November 21, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

When it comes to Carroll County's forest conservation ordinance, the commissioners can't seem to leave well enough alone.

Even though the law, designed to preserve the county's remaining wooded areas, has been in effect for less than a year, the commissioners already want to review and revise it.

And, judging from what commissioners Elmer C. Lippy and Julia W. Gouge have said about the contemplated changes, the rewriting will not be a mere fine-tuning. Instead, they are thinking of changing the thrust of the ordinance from one designed to preserve existing woodlands to one that allows developers to replace bulldozed forests with street trees.

If the county commissioners follow through and gut this law, they will be demonstrating shortsightedness of the first order.

Even though Carroll is a rural county with thousands of acres of open space, a very small portion of its land is forested. One survey estimates that woods cover about 23 percent of the county's 453 square miles, the lowest ratio in Maryland. Given that development will continue in this county, every effort should be made to minimize the destruction of the remaining woods.

Carroll's forest conservation ordinance does exactly that. The thrust of the law is to discourage developers from destroying stands of trees when alternatives are available. Should a developer have to remove trees, the county law requires reforestation.

From the beginning, Carroll's developers didn't want an ordinance designed to preserve existing woodlands. It is little surprise that they are still trying to get their way.

The developers wanted a forest conservation law that allowed them to "buy" their way out when they bulldoze stands of trees. For every square foot of forest destroyed, they would pay 10 cents into a state reforestation fund.

Despite Herculean lobbying efforts within the committee that wrote the legislation, the developers were unable to get a draft ordinance to their liking. Then they pressured the commissioners, suggesting that the 18 months of work drafting the bill and tailoring it to Carroll's conditions be tossed out.

To their credit, Mrs. Gouge and Mr. Lippy stood up to the developers and voted the draft into law.

Apparently, the developers didn't like playing by this set of rules. complaining long and loud enough, they have caused Mrs. Gouge and Mr. Lippy to reconsider their positions.

Mrs. Gouge says the commissioners have to be "practical," but that is the wrong standard for measuring the value of the existing law.

The commissioners should follow Jeremy Bentham's dictum of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." The 18th century British philosopher believed the role of government was not to serve the vested interests in society but to ensure all members derived benefits from public actions.

Developers argue that complying with the forest conservation act increases their costs, which they have to pass on to their consumers.

But the same could be said for other county ordinances such as requiring developers to construct streets, storm water management systems and sediment control ponds or to comply with building and fire codes.

Why do we require developers to incur these costs? Because we, through our elected representatives, have decided that noncompliance would cost society as a whole a great deal more than the marginal costs the developers incur.

It is true that complying with the forest conservation law adds to developers' costs. They have another set of plans to draw and approvals to obtain. Preparing the land for utilities and roads takes longer because they cannot bulldoze indiscriminately. Builders have to build fences and barriers to preserve existing trees during construction.

But those costs are minimal compared to the damage to the environment when woods are destroyed and replaced with sprawling, deforested subdivisions.

The homeowners who want trees and shade have the costs of buying trees to replace all those cut down.

For the rest of us, the cost is less direct, but it may be greater. The decline of the fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay can be directly correlated to the wholesale destruction of woods and forests in the bay's drainage systems. Not only do forests act as filters for nutrients that have flowed into the Chesapeake and killed off aquatic life, they provide food and shelter for a wide variety of animal, bird and insect life.

While Mr. Lippy may believe that a "tree is a tree," planting trees along streets does not replace a forest habitat. If it did, Westminster's tree-lined Main Street would be home to deer, ground hogs, possums and foxes.

The developers are also disingenuous in their arguments. Changing the law will not reduce their costs. Paying 10 cents a square foot into a state reforestation fund would add about $4,400 to every acre they disturb. That is not a cost they are willing to absorb.

Developers' costs should not be the deciding factor in revising the forest conservation law. Instead, the commissioners should be interested in determining what course of action provides the greatest benefits to county residents as a whole.

If the commissioners amend the law for the benefit of the developers, it will be done at the expense of the rest of us.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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