Council committee approves measure to protect tree canopy in Montgomery

July 8, 2013

After months of negotiations with builders, a Montgomery County Council committee on Monday approved a bill to prevent loss of tree canopy, especially from new home construction in older downcounty neighborhoods.

The measure, which goes to the full council later this summer, requires builders to plant three shade trees for every one lost to construction, or to pay a fee to the county. The bill represents a compromise worked out by the Department of Environmental Protection and small builders.

The group representing builders, Renewing Montgomery, lodged numerous objections to the original version of the legislation, proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett. Under Leggett’s proposal, home builders that diminish tree canopy would have paid fees into a fund so that trees could be planted elsewhere in the county. Opponents saw the measure as a form of taxation that treated trees on private property as if they belonged to the public.

With the revised version, builders are still subject to a fee but would receive credit for planting new trees on site. Renewing Montgomery and county staff disagreed, however, on the ratio of tree replacement. Builders wanted something closer to a 1-to-1 ratio of trees lost to trees replaced. But the council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee voted unanimously in favor of the county staff’s 3-to-1 proposal. Officials said the ratio is a more realistic reflection of tree mortality rates, in which planting three assures that one survives to maturity, or about 25 to 30 years.

The bill grows out of the county’s concern that infill development in Bethesda and other older communities much of it in the form of tear-downs and construction of larger homes, was eroding tree cover. While the overall tree canopy in Montgomery is about 50 percent, cover in some downcounty neighborhoods is as low as eight percent.

Parties to the negotiations said that while they were happier with their original proposals, they could probably live with what the committee approved.

“It was the product of a lot of back and forth, but we ended up in a good spot,” said Stan Edwards, chief of the environmental policy and compliance division for the Department of Environmental Protection.

“I think we’re getting to an outcome that’s about as good as we will get,” said Caren Madsen of the Trees Matter Coalition, representing multiple environmental and conservation groups.

Robert Kaufman, associate director of governmental affairs for the Maryland National Capital Building Association, said the fees still amount to a tax on small builders. But he added: “I don’t want to sound ungrateful for what everybody did.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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