Sunday, January 13, 2008

Montgomery County's Forests

From Marc Korman:

Despite the recent passage of a new county growth policy, growth issues remain at the forefront of Montgomery County’s attention. One aspect of this is trees, which was the topic of discussion at last Thursday’s League of Women Voters Forest Conservation Law Forum. The Forum featured Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, discussing the Board’s proposed changes to the law, and Councilman Marc Elrich, discussing his own efforts to build upon the Planning Board’s recommendations. Representatives of the environmental community and building industry also spoke. According to the Planning Board, the County had 93,000 acres of forest in 1951, 100,000 acres in 1973, and 92,000 acres in 2002. How much forest cover Montgomery County maintains in the years ahead may very well depend on reform of the Forest Conservation law.

It was apparent from all of the presenters that the current forest conservation law is extremely complicated. The law applies only to forests, defined as 10,00 square feet with 100 trees per acre (43,650 square feet). Essentially, when any type of development is occurring on a lot size that is at least 40,000 square feet (just under an acre), the forest conservation law is triggered. Depending on the type of land use the parcel falls under, a certain amount of the forest on that land is supposed to be maintained (the conservation threshold) and a certain amount of new forest is supposed to be planted (the afforestation threshold). Currently, the forest conservation law is not designed to be neutral in the amount of forest in the County and in most cases only a quarter of acre of trees needs to be replaced for every acre removed (above a certain level of removal, acreage must be replaced by two to one). The law aims to keep forests on site or in the area, but developers can also purchase offsets in other areas. This can be both good and bad. The good is that offsets can be strategically purchased in areas like stream buffers, which can provide maximum benefit for the environment by reducing runoff. The bad is that offsets can also be purchased from existing forests that are not in danger. Replanting can also be problematic, as replacing a large diameter mature tree with a small seedling is a huge, short term loss to the environment.

According to Royce Hanson, the Planning Board’s reform has a few major purposes including clarifying the existing law, eliminating some of the exemptions to the law, a slight increase of 5% in the amount of trees that would be retained, and an extension of the amount of time developers must maintain any new trees from two years to five years, which would increase the cost of development.

Councilman Elrich wants to amend the Planning Board’s changes and increase further the amount of trees retained, apply the law to lots as small as 10,000 square feet, and try to reach a goal of no net loss of trees by increasing the amount of acreage replanted or retained.

Many of us are supportive of both a new tree ordinance (which would apply to individual and small groups of trees) and improving the forest conservation law. The problem is that the county is growing, almost regardless of what policies the government puts in place and there needs to be a balance between some needed development and important conservation efforts. In order to accommodate that growth and maintain our trees and open space, we need to build up in dense areas, preferably those around Metro stations. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many people who support preserving the Agriculture Reserve, limiting sprawl, and saving trees also oppose much of this vertical growth. Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons for this like traffic concerns. Other times it seems to be a reflexively anti-growth view. The growth debate in Montgomery County continues to rage. . .