Using land for healthy growth Innovation: 'Mitigation banking' is a key part of a proposal that would encourage developers to create forested areas.

March 03, 1996|By Amy L. Bernstein

If a key revision to the state's major forest conservation law is approved by the legislature this year, it could significantly alter how, when and where thousands of new trees are planted on public and private properties around the state.

At issue is an innovative proposal that would allow land %o developers to restore or create forested areas not just on their construction sites but virtually anywhere county officials foresee environmental benefits: at stream heads, farmland boundaries, adjacent to existing forests, along city streets and even around private homes.

The approach, known as "mitigation banking," is already under way in some counties but has never been implemented statewide. Now, mitigation banking is the linchpin in a set of proposed revisions to the Forest Conservation Act of 1991.

The act requires local jurisdictions with planning and zoning authority to devise ways of preserving or replacing trees that are felled for construction. Among other things, the act also includes guidelines for identifying environmentally sensitive areas and exclusion zones, and sets standards for governing how and when forestation must occur in the context of certain real estate development projects.

So far, the mitigation banking proposal has received qualified support from environmentalists and developers alike.

"If it's done correctly and in an environmentally sensitive way, I think it's a good way to manage the loss of forestland due to development," says Erin Fitzsimmons, who represented state environmentalists on a 1993 gubernatorial advisory committee charged with streamlining the Forest Conservation Act the first time around.

"Mitigation banking gives a kick-start to the environment," says Richard Hull, president of Carroll Land Services, a civil engineering firm. "It gives developers a reasonable way to meet [state forestation] requirements, which are very stringent."

State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican who is sponsoring Senate Bill 64 to revise the Forest Conservation Act, hopes that the mitigation banking policy, along with other changes -- such as repealing deadlines for forest-related expenditures -- "will make the Forest Conservation Act more workable."

To date, developers have balked at the paperwork and costs associated with filing forest conservation plans and other steps involved in compensatory forestation. In 1994, the act was revised to reflect some of these concerns.

As a result, the state relinquished control over some regulations, allowing developers and local jurisdictions to work out many of the specifics on how, when and where forestation is to be done.

Still, developers would like to see additional modifications. "I think the law had a good intent, but it's extremely cumbersome," says developer Scott Gove, president of Sandhill Enterprises Inc. in Frederick County.

Mr. Gove, for one, thinks that mitigation banking offers some relief. It will, he says, offer "a carrot approach to legislation rather than just a stick," because the policy has economic benefits for those who participate in the rather complex set of transactions ,, that accompany the selection and management of a forestation site.

Briefly, here's how mitigation banking works:

First, a developer determines how much new forest he is obligated to provide, based on formulas described in the Forest Conservation Act. (A 100-acre site, for instance, might entail 15 to 20 acres of new forestation.) Next, he reviews his options, based on a combination of state and local regulations and his own economic priorities. He may, for instance, plant new trees on the building site itself; pay the county a fee in lieu of planting; or avoid new planting altogether by clear-cutting less than the reforestation threshold stipulates (again, based on state and local formulas).

Another set of options involves more players and larger environmental issues. The developer may purchase an easement land (that is, land set aside for permanent protection) in an environmentally sensitive area, where he can then fulfill his tree-planting obligation.

Alternatively, he may become a mitigation banker himself, acquiring, selling and managing easement sites for other developers.

Richard Hull is one such banker. He owns a 3-acre "bank" of land right in Lou Bivona's front yard.

'A necessity'

Mr. Bivona, a Carroll County homeowner who doesn't have time to mow and tend his 5-acre lot, was happy to sell the land. The area, next to a forest the county wishes to preserve, was bought by Mr. Hull for about $1,800 an acre. In turn, the county purchased an easement from Mr. Hull, who now must plant trees, do the requisite paperwork and maintain the site for two growing seasons (26 months).

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