Last forests on Forest Drive spark controversy in Annapolis

Development near Quiet Waters Park ushers new regulations, concerns about trees

August 23, 2012|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

Close to the southern boundary of Annapolis, near the mouth of the 340-acre park deemed the jewel of Anne Arundel County's park system, proposed developments have sparked citywide debate on how to protect trees.

These last two big tracts of undeveloped forest along Forest Drive are projected to become the site of hundreds of homes and a senior community. Plans for that development have drawn 1,500 petition signatures and opposition from 19 environmental and community groups.

"People get really upset when they see the last of the forests going down, and they ask hard questions like, 'Shouldn't they be protected?' " said Anastasia Hopkinson, a committee member of the citizens group Save Your Annapolis Neck.

"The city has struggled with its role in that process," she said. "It's a city, they've not had any forests to protect. Well, they've never had a forest this big to protect."

Already, the city has revamped its planning process to consider a property's environmental features first. It created a work group to reconsider how the city applies the state's Forest Conservation Act.

The 40 acres, mostly wooded, of the Reserve at Quiet Waters Park development sit adjacent to the park and would have a "wildlife corridor," plus connections to the park's six miles of trails that lead to Quiet Waters' beach, an ice rink, playgrounds, an amphitheater and a dog park.

The project is just one approval away from being able to apply for building permits, but the city and environmentalists say the rules applied to this project will have broader implications, especially on the 180-acre senior living project down the road called Crystal Spring.

"For decades, any development along Forest Drive has been the source of controversy," Annapolis Mayor Joshua Cohen said. "This is probably the first time the environment concerns are equally as legitimate as the traffic and 'don't build it' concerns."

Said David Prosten, chairman of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the Sierra Club: "It's a test case for how the city of Annapolis will use the Forest Conservation Act and how much teeth they will put into it. How that law's used at Reserve at Quiet Waters, there's no reason to think it wouldn't be used the same way down the road."

"There's a statewide impact that's huge," said Diane Butler, a commissioner on the Annapolis Environmental Commission, an advisory panel that recommended denying the development project. These questions about which trees need to be preserved and how to do it, she said, haven't come up before.

"There haven't been any projects large enough for anyone to take notice," Butler said.

The Reserve project has endured more than a year of scrutiny and underwent revisions that halved the number of 2-foot-diameter trees destroyed and will ultimately leave more than half of the property wooded when all 158 homes are built. The developer agreed to more than 40 conditions to building there, including planting a tree in every backyard.

The city annexed the land six years ago for the express purpose of developing it. Jonathan Mayers, president of developer Chesapeake Realty Group, and his environmental consultants pointed out Thursday it was not a pristine woodland.

Some of the land was once used as a dump. A gypsy moth infestation and high winds have damaged the health of some of the trees in the forest, which wouldn't have been given a "priority" designation if it weren't adjacent to Quiet Waters Park.

Yet objections continue as city staff and the developer haggle over putting a 100-foot-wide buffer in the southwestern corner, where Quiet Waters Park meets the subdivision and a narrow band of trees is home to century-old white oaks.

"We've lost a lot of trees and vegetation here, and it's exposed the forest of Quiet Waters Park," said E. Thomas Smith Jr., the city's chief of current planning. "The concern is not about maintaining the vegetation. It's actually quite poor. But what's important is maintaining the soils right there so we can get regeneration" in the park.

Objections to the project have poured in from residents, other lawmakers, the city's environmental advisory panel, the South River Federation, civic associations, the Annapolis Conservancy Board and even the county's birding club.

"I went to buy birdseed, and I was told, 'I understand that you're taking down all the trees on that property,' " attorney Jerome I. Feldman, who represents the developer, said during a hearing Thursday before the Board of Appeals.

"Many who have voiced opposition have not had the opportunity to understand this application meets or exceeds code requirements," Feldman also said.

It was the third of at least four such hearings on whether the Reserve project obeys all city development rules. Board of Appeals Chairman Christian F. Elkington Jr. said the first two hearings were so raucous they required a police presence.

The changes in development process wrought by Reserve objections mean the Crystal Spring development — whose owners have already promised to leave roughly 100 acres wooded — will start first with identifying valuable trees.

Prosten, of the Sierra Club, said objectors plan to continue applying pressure until they've exhausted appeals on both wooded developments.

"We understand that development is a part of life, we don't have a problem that," Prosten said. "What we and a lot of other groups in the area have a problem with is whether they're going to be taking down more forest than is appropriate."

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