More than 14,450 acres of Maryland’s forests have disappeared to development in the past eight years, and conservationists say that’s the good news.
Before the recession dampened the building industry, about 7,000 acres of Maryland’s tree canopy vanished every year.
Now, as the economy rebounds, environmentalists are seeking a stronger state law to prevent further degradation of one of the best filters of Chesapeake Bay pollution — contiguous forests that once blanketed the state.
“We’re still losing forest land, and this bill is asking someone who cuts down an acre of forest to plant one,” said state Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick), who sponsored the measure.
Young said the stricter rule — a fourfold increase from the 1991 Forest Conservation Act’s original standards — is crucial to fulfilling the state’s “no net loss” policy on forest coverage.
The proposal pits conservationists against the development community at time when Gov. Larry Hogan (R), a former real estate developer, has pushed other measures to strengthen his environmental record.
“We’re focused on our environmental package, and we’ll see what other bills get to his desk,” Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. He declined to offer a position on the forest legislation.
Developers say the one-for-one proposal is impractical and would drive development to farmland, promoting sprawl. It would also shift the focus away from preserving the most ecologically valuable forest land, they said.
“Replanting acre for acre, there’s not enough land in the state, really, to do that,” said Lori Graf, chief executive of the Maryland Building Industry Association. “We’re not looking to cut down more trees than we have to.”
Graf said that in many cases, development can improve the drainage and ecology of a site and “actually create a better environment.”
An analysis of forestry records by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found application of the existing forest law varies widely, with some Eastern Shore counties replanting less than 2 percent of the forested acres removed during development over the past eight years.
Some jurisdictions rely heavily on a provision that allows developers to pay a fee instead of replanting the trees. Legislative analysts said most fees don’t cover the cost of replanting, and local governments often struggle to find ways to replant.
Application of the law has also led to lawsuits that tangle up developments in court. A pair of proposed developments of wooded property in Annapolis prompted such controversy that the city decided to rewrite its local policies on forest conservation.
Rob Savidge, an environmental scientist, quit his job with the Annapolis city government over the way the city interpreted the law. He’s now pushing to strengthen the state law to avoid what he views as pitfalls that let developers negotiate out of replanting trees.
“There’s always going to be a net loss of forest under the way the law is written,” he said. “If we want to stop that, we’re going to have to change it.”
Leaders in the development community strenuously objected to proposed changes to the state law, which include sharply escalating fees designed to deter companies from paying their way out planting trees.
They said the fees exceed the expense of replanting the trees and could drive the forestry cost of developing a 100-acre property from about $98,000 to as much as $400,000.
Tom Ballentine, vice president of public policy and government relations for the commercial real estate development association NAIOP, said the existing law was designed to promote retention of the most ecologically valuable forests.
“The forest conservation act was never intended to be a no-net-loss tool, by itself,” he said.
Some jurisdictions have used it that way.
Carroll County, which requires developers to plant an acre of forest for each cleared during development, has one of the best records in the state and gained 64 acres of forestland over the past eight years, according to the bay foundation’s analysis.
Jonathan Bowman, Carroll’s forest conservation manager, said the mostly rural district set a high bar decades ago and refused to set up a fee system if developers can’t meet it. Instead, the county set up a forest bank where property owners can voluntarily reforest property, then sell the credits to developers who can’t replant every acre they cut down.
“It’s an accepted part of the program,” Bowman said. “A lot of people don’t want to pay a lot of money to replant trees, but if that’s how they get their permits approved, they’ll do it.”
Since 1995, 557 acres of banked forest land in Carroll has been sold to developers to offset their projects.
Some state officials dispute that Maryland is losing any forest at all, citing other conservation efforts that increase forest land and more refined methods of counting how much of the state’s roughly 6.2 million acres is covered in trees.
The Maryland Forest Service, relying on two methods, estimates at least 2.6 million acres remain forested — above the 40 percent tree canopy goal set in a 2013 law that mandated no net loss.
After the state passed that law, it enacted two programs to increase forest land: a $25 coupon for homeowners who plant trees, and a now-defunct “Lawn to Woodland” program that planted trees on private properties four acres or smaller. That added about 200 acres of forest before it was discontinued, according the Department of Natural Resources.
The Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties, which represent local governments, also objected to the one-for-one proposal. Representatives for both organizations told the Senate Environment, Health and Education Committee last week that cities don’t have enough undeveloped, unforested land to accommodate that.
If cities looked elsewhere for places to replant, other governments might object, said Candace L. Donoho, lobbyist for the municipal league.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), a co-sponsor of the measure, said there’s room for compromise and teamwork.
“We just wouldn’t run up to Frederick and say, ‘Hi, here are all of Baltimore’s trees,’ “ the committee chairwoman said.
The development pressure on Maryland’s forest land is likely to increase in the future, said economist Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group.
Basu said deforestation slowed as developers focused on office, hotel and apartment development in urban areas to accommodate demand from millennials attached to city life.
But as those 20-something millennials get married and start families, Basu said, it could enhance demand for the suburban development that cuts into forests.