Trees proposal sparks debate Two commissioners back bill that might ease developers' path

No-cut pledge at issue

7-year harvesting ban may be circumvented, some opponents fear

February 21, 1996|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Two county commissioners are supporting a bill that might make it easier for developers to circumvent the county forest conservation ordinance.

Supporters of the bill say it is an effort to help an 82-year-old Finksburg-area resident who wants to cut trees, but refuses to sign a pledge not to subdivide his land for seven years. The forest conservation ordinance requires the pledge.

But nothing in the bill, sponsored by Carroll's General Assembly delegation, would stop a developer from buying wooded acreage, then getting a waiver of the seven-year ban from the county government.

The developer could harvest the trees, then file a subdivision plan. He still would be required to replace additional trees that he takes down to build the subdivision, but he would start with property that had been partly cleared.

The declaration of intent not to develop never stopped anyone from developing, said Vicki Luther, acting county forest program and conservation manager.

But landowners who harvest trees, then decide to subdivide, now must replace trees based on the original forest, not those remaining after the harvest. The forest conservation ordinance enables the county to fine prop

erty owners who violate the declaration of intent, but no fines have been imposed.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown opposes changing the law.

If you can see that developers might circumvent the ordinance, he said, "you clearly see the danger in this issue. "I would urge our delegation and other local officials to refrain from tearing apart the bill."

The change would weaken the forest conservation ordinance by making it easier for developers to build on wooded acreage, said Neil M. Ridgely, former county forest conservation manager. "The original purpose of the ordinance was to preserve existing forest," he said.

Impetus for the change came from Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who has opposed the forest conservation ordinance since it was adopted in 1992. Mr. Dell said he has sought the waiver authority for several years and "finally got someone to listen."

Commissioner Richard T. Yates based his support for the bill on property rights and said he doesn't think developers would use it to circumvent the conservation ordinance.

"He'd have to identify himself as a developer before I'd grant the waiver, and if it's a developer, I wouldn't grant the waiver," Mr. Yates said.

The bill gives the planning commission or staff members who issue grading and sediment control permits the authority to issue the waiver. Mr. Yates and Mr. Dell said they wanted the commissioners to have that authority.

State Sen. Larry E. Haines, who sponsored the bill as delegation chairman, said he didn't see potential for abuse by developers, since decisions on waivers would be made case by case. He said he wouldn't oppose amending the bill to give the decision-making authority to the County Commissioners.

But the county already has allowed at least one developer to file a timber harvest plan on land that has been approved for development, a practice Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin questioned when it was allowed for Martin K. P. Hill's North Carroll Farms Section 5.

"To allow an exempt timber harvest to occur on a parcel which is also submitted for subdivision is in direct contradiction to the spirit and the letter of the law," Mr. Nevin wrote James E. Slater, environmental services administrator.

Mr. Slater defended the practice of allowing tree harvesting on land proposed for subdivision as a way to protect the best trees "because we control what [the developer] is going to take out. That way we know they're only going to take out what they need for development."

Several Carroll legislators said the bill was presented to them as a solution to Atlee Edrington's desire to harvest timber on two lots totaling eight acres that he owns near Finksburg. Mr. Edrington said he isn't going to develop the property, but has refused for three years to sign the declaration not to subdivide.

Del. Donald B. Elliott said the declaration of intent is unreasonable. He compared cutting trees to "a farming activity similar to the harvesting of corn," which does not bar a farmer from subdividing.

Mr. Edrington said he told the commissioners: "I'd put up a cash bond guarantee not to develop that land. But to sign that moratorium, that's just not right."

Greg Becker, chairman of the Sierra Club's Catoctin group, said the bill "weakens the forest conservation act." Because it applies only to Carroll County, he said he didn't expect strong lobbying against it.

Mr. Ridgely sent a letter of opposition to the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

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