Caught in a legal thicket

Forest law: While intent of state-ordered conservation statute is applauded, some wonder whether Baltimore County is overstepping boundaries.

May 01, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Michele and Gregory Reina chopped down two dead trees in their back yard and erected an above-ground pool. For that, they've been made to feel like criminals.

Baltimore County dragged the Reinas into Circuit Court, and considered fining them $1.3 million for their actions. The county decided against a monetary penalty, but a judge did place the couple on probation for 18 months.

The Reinas, it turns out, had stepped into the thicket of the county's forest conservation law, an 8-year-old statute that is cheered by preservationists even as it confounds homeowners accused of violating its provisions.

The law also has provoked complaints, and county officials have begun a review to see whether revisions are needed. The county may not have much flexibility, however, because the forest program was ordered by the state in 1992.

"Have we overdone it, or do we have some discretion?" asked Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents much of rural northern Baltimore County.

While McIntire and others concede that problems may be more anecdotal than systemic, the anecdotes are revealing.

When the Reinas bought their Rosedale home in 1998 for $130,000, they were told that some of the yard must be preserved as a forest. They liked the idea, and closed the deal.

But when Gregory Reina removed two dead trees in the rear of the yard, a neighbor complained. A county inspector arrived with small orange markers, and it was only then that the Reinas say they learned some startling facts: Not only was the conservation zone larger and closer to their home than they thought, but they were told they couldn't mow, plant or remove vegetation in it.

A few months later, when they put in the above-ground pool, a second neighbor complained. The pool encroached 5 feet into the forest conservation easement. The Reinas offered to return space elsewhere in the yard, but the county rejected the proposal. Citations were issued. Fines mounted - $1,000 per day for each of three violations - with their court date still more than a year away. Gregory Reina became ill.

"I went to the hospital. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't function," said the 47-year-old Lockheed Martin press operator. "Everything I worked for all my life is going to be taken from me because I mowed my lawn, because I put a pool in for my kids."

The Reinas aren't alone. County officials report mounting concern about the law, and council members have asked the planning board to review it and recommend changes, a process that will take several months.

The county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management "has committed to working with the planning commission and interested constituencies to review the impacts of the forest conservation law on minor subdivisions," said county spokeswoman Elise Armacost.

But even those who criticize parts of the law praise its goal of saving trees.

"It is a great law. It does what it's supposed to do for large developments," said Joe L. Larson, president of Spellman, Larson & Associates, a civil engineering and surveying firm. "But it is woefully inept when it applies to small subdivisions - three lots or less. It really penalizes the small guy."

A formula determines how much space must be set aside as forest in every development. Subdivisions of 20 or 30 homes "generally have enough surplus area to allocate a forest conservation easement" that is separate from the building lots, Larson said, and never affects homeowners. As an alternative, developers can pay into a fund that provides forests in other areas.

But for smaller developments, such as the Reinas', the fees can be unaffordable.

As a result, the building lots often contain forest easements that homebuyers must live with. The buyers pay taxes on the property but are allowed to do little more than walk across it.

"The impact of this is unbelievable," said Charles E. Brooks, a Towson attorney who has crusaded against the law. Brooks has devoted eight Saturday radio shows to the subject on WCBM, AM 680, where he buys an hour of time each week. "Did you know you can't plant an azalea in the forest conservation easement? Did you know you can't cut your grass in the forest conservation easement? This law is really unenforceable."

Many property owners don't know about the regulations because they don't ask enough questions during closing, or don't use a lawyer when they buy their property, officials say.

"One of the things we have to do is better educate property owners, or soon-to-be property owners," said David Carroll, the county's environmental chief. "Anybody who has ever been at the settlement table, you just sign reams of paper."

The Reinas didn't use a lawyer. Nor did Larry LaSov of Glyndon. He's been trying to overturn an agreement between the county and the developer to plant 300 trees in the expansive side yard where he wanted his sons to play sports.

LaSov says he was never shown the correct boundaries of a forest easement on his property, but the county Board of Appeals recently ruled that LaSov had no right to question the decision. An appeal can be filed only by the developer, not the homeowner, the appeals board ruled. LaSov says he will likely drop the matter. He can't afford to continue the fight in Circuit Court.

"We live in fear all the time," said LaSov, who anticipates a citation from inspectors because he insists on mowing between the saplings. "I think the premise of this [law] was excellent. But they've gotten out of hand. And any system that doesn't have checks and balances is a dictatorship."

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