Losing Sight of the Forest

March 09, 1995

Since its enactment four years ago, Maryland's forest conservation law has been a favorite target of developers. They complain that complying with the law adds significantly to the cost of construction and that the regulations are too complex. Opponents of the law would like to see it eviscerated. A Frederick state legislator, J. Anita Stup, appears more than willing to oblige.

The Republican delegate has sponsored legislation that would exempt most of Maryland from the forest law except for Baltimore City and the half-dozen most urban and suburban counties, including Howard.

Under current state law, people planning to develop more than 40,000 square feet of land -- just shy of an acre -- must create a plan to protect environmentally valuable woodlands. Depending on how the land is to be used, property owners must leave from 15 percent to 50 percent of it in forest. If they want to clear more than that, they must replant trees on that site or elsewhere. As a last resort, builders may pay a fee of at least $4,300 an acre, to be used for tree planting on public land. Counties were required to adopt their own ordinances and could modify the state provisions to suit local conditions.

Under one version of the proposed legislation, the counties (Howard, Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's) nearest to Baltimore and Washington would have to comply with the 1991 law.

But the rapidly developing exurbs such as Carroll, Frederick and Calvert counties would not have to protect existing forest or replace trees cut by developers.

About 40 percent of Maryland has tree cover, but state forestry officials estimate that about 10,000 acres of woods are leveled annually, mainly for development. Indiscriminate cutting of trees will send more nutrients and soil running into streams and rivers, choking off life in the bay and its tributaries.

Exempting most counties from the law is not the answer. If regulations are too complex, simplify them. If they are too onerous, re-examine them. If the Chesapeake is to be preserved, all of Maryland will have to protect and expand the tree cover. Exempting all but the most densely populated jurisdictions from the forest conservation law is to lose sight of the law's purpose.

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