Missing the Forest for the Grass

July 07, 1995

Before Carroll's Environmental Affairs Advisory Board amends the county's forest conservation ordinance again, its members ought to look beyond the unique circumstances at the Four Seasons Sports Complex. A case similar to this one is not likely to come before the board again because most developers seeking grading permits are interested in building houses, not just regrading grassy fields.

Making policy on the basis of this case alone is likely to result in undermining the county's forest ordinance. From its inception, this law was intended to improve Maryland's environment, not just prevent damage by developers.

Gregg Newman, the owner of Four Seasons, wants to grade more than eight acres to create five soccer fields. Mr. Newman said he should not be required to plant any trees because he isn't cutting any down. Some EEAB members agreed with him and tried to reduce the number of trees he would have to plant from 1.5 acres to three-quarters of an acre. When a county attorney pointed out the EEAB had no authority to make such allowances, members of the board responded that the ordinance needs to be changed.

If Mr. Newman were putting houses on this land instead of grass fields, there would be no arguing the provisions of the forest ordinance. In fact, there would be howls of outrage if no trees were planted in such a subdivision. Because Mr. Newman is replacing grass with grass, it is easy to lose sight of why the Maryland General Assembly enacted a statewide tree ordinance the first place.

Its purpose is to protect the environment by keeping destruction of existing woodlands to a minimum, by replacing trees that are cut down and re-establishing woods in sensitive areas. Trees are the best protectors of the environment. They prevent erosion, absorb water and nutrients and provide a good habitat for wildlife and plants.

It may be true that Mr. Newman will not cut down trees to grade his soccer fields, but the natural topography of the land will be disturbed. Creating new stands of trees lessens the possibility that these permanent changes to the landscape will damage the environment. Even if Mr. Newman had chosen to plant the trees in a land bank or along a stream in another property, there would be a net benefit to the environment.

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