Trading trees for more homes

County residents complain that developers are doing the cutting but not replacement

December 09, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

Roger Jones was outraged when he said that thousands of trees were chopped down behind his River Hill home last summer to make way for 11 new homes.

Then he was amazed to find out that instead of replacement trees going up in the new development, they will be planted about 25 miles away near Howard County's border with Frederick and Carroll counties.

"Here, the people will enjoy the trees," said Jones, a Columbia attorney. "Out there, the cornstalks will enjoy the trees."

Kathleen Kralowec, 74, the landowner who sold the land for Trotters Run, said she spent 10 years and more than $100,000 fighting construction of Swimmer Row Way and seeking an alternative right-of-way that would have kept the trees.

Because the road cut through a floodplain, the trees had to be leveled and the ground raised. Hundreds of the trees were ones Kralowec planted 30 years ago, she said.

"It was so beautiful," said Kralowec, who since 1976 has lived on the property that overlooks the new development. "It was 8 acres of forest."

But tree cutters descended in June, and within two days, at least 700 trees were wiped out, Jones said. Hundreds more would go in the days that followed.

The problem that Jones and his neighbors face at Trotters Run, on a Columbia out-parcel, is similar to one facing homeowners who live at the edge of west Columbia near a 264-unit housing development called Riverdale. A project of Dale Thompson Builders Inc., Riverdale is at Cedar Lane and Route 32.

In both cases, trees are being traded for rooftops, with no promise that any significant number of trees will be replaced within sight.

Telephone calls made to Cornerstone, the developer of Trotters Run, and Dale Thompson Builders were not returned.

Planting trees at remote locations is one option allowed developers under county reforestation regulations. But for Jones and other homeowners, the problem goes far beyond aesthetics.

The main concern is storm-water management, because the trees that have been retained are at the bottom of natural ravines and are likely to wash away within a few years from erosion, unless expensive, underground sewers are installed, Jones said.

Such environmental matters have recently become a focus for local officials. The Columbia Association has decided to seek help from volunteers from the 10 villages to protect against erosion and pollution. Already, dredging for two Columbia lakes is expected to cost more than $10 million.

County officials note that there are practical reasons for planting trees at remote locations rather than parceling them out in small numbers in the new communities.

"When we're thinking about creating a small, forest conservation easement on-site, we have to weigh that with does it make sense to take it off-site and create a larger, more beneficial corridor," said Cindy Hamilton, chief of the division of land development in the county Department of Planning and Zoning. "If you're a wildlife creature, chances are you're not going to want to occupy a small site."

But Hamilton acknowledged that the program has been tweaked in recent years because developers weren't doing a good job of self-monitoring.

"Developers were not meeting their obligations in a timely fashion," Hamilton said. "We felt we had to step in and police it. I've been very surprised that some good developers are very delinquent."

Now county officials do inspections, have deadlines for plantings and have started to move toward default on projects where developers have not planted required trees.

Another option popular with developers is payment of fees in lieu of tree replacement. The amount is calculated at the rate of 75 cents per square foot of the developer's obligation, Hamilton said.

"Recreation and Parks hasn't been able to spend it as quickly as we've amassed it," she said. "We will not accept payment in lieu for more than an acre's worth of obligation. We want them to find other options."

The problems of tree cutting and accompanying water issues are expected to grow as undeveloped land gets more scarce, county officials said.

"Now it's virtually every project that residents are upset," Hamilton said. "Do you make the developer lose residential lots they would be entitled to, per the zoning, to accommodate the forest conservation on site? We walk the tightrope between the interests of the community and the rights of the developer."

The Hickory Ridge and Cornerstone projects fall within County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty's district.

"Nobody likes to see trees disappear in their environment," Sigaty said. "I'm in the process of sorting out with residents what options are available. It seems to me that if you're taking down trees as a developer, the smartest plan is to put them back there, but you may not be able to."

One area that needs further study is just how long land development agreements should remain intact.

"If you get an approval to do something, and for some reason you're delayed, things can change around you," she said during a visit to the Trotters Run project last week. "How long is an approval good? These are the things I need to answer."

Replacement trees for the Cornerstone project are to be planted on the 130-acre Talley Farm in Woodbine, where John Talley has agreements with about a half-dozen developers to allow planting to meet reforestation requirements. His on-site landscape company handles the work, he said.

"I can understand why a homeowner would like to see a tree put back in their backyard," Talley said. "But we're talking about environmental issues and water quality that affects all of us. In reality, the people of River Hill are benefiting from the trees planted on our farm. The trees are producing oxygen and absorbing carbon monoxide from all the cars."

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