Raising stakes for trees

Fines: Rule would cost homeowners for illegal clearing, but enforcement is still needed.

March 21, 2000

IN Anne Arundel County, the protected tree comes down too cheaply.

Trees and other vegetation help protect the Chesapeake Bay from waste. They are the front line and the last line against pollution.

The law restricts property owners and homebuilders from chopping down trees near the shoreline. Those who violate the law are ordered to repair the damage by replacing trees.

But the price of illegal clearing is cheap: just a $100 fine. And the law is sporadically enforced.

The result? Property owners might take their chances when trees that are essential to the ecological system are seen as nothing more than obstructions to a perfect bay view.

Waterfront homeowners have a special obligation to the Chesapeake Bay. The magnificent estuary lost much of its charm and purity to sediment, sewage and industrial waste before Maryland wised up and imposed restrictions such as the critical areas law to protect the water. That allows local jurisdictions to make rules that protect all areas within 1,000 feet of shoreline. In Anne Arundel, critical areas abound. The county boasts 527 miles of shoreline.

The county was among the first to adopt a critical area enforcement program a dozen years ago, but $100 fines are not enough of a deterrent to homeowners and developers who are bent on shaping the coastline for their own purposes. The county needs to impose steeper fines, and that could happen soon.

Proposed legislation would increase the fines from $100 for the first violation to $500 for the first day of a violation and $1,000 for each day that a violation goes uncorrected. The county also must do a better job of informing owners of shorefront properties of the restrictions. Changes are needed to raise penalties and awareness. But stiffer fines are not enough. The county has to enforce the laws more effectively, or more bay front views will come at the bay's expense.

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