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Maryland lawmakers vote to let developers replace cut trees by preserving existing forest

Trees along the Georgetown Branch Trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring were cleared in 2017 as part of construction on Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line.
Trees along the Georgetown Branch Trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring were cleared in 2017 as part of construction on Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line. (Katherine Shaver/The Washington Post)
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Maryland lawmakers voted late Monday to allow developers and home builders to replace some trees they cut down by preserving existing forest, a measure that local planning officials said was necessary to keep development moving.

The legislation, passed in the final hours of the General Assembly session, came in response to a state attorney general opinion in October that said local planners had erred for decades in allowing developers to offset tree losses by preserving forest off-site. The state’s 1991 Forest Conservation Act, the opinion said, required that developers offset cleared trees by planting new ones.

The legislation, sponsored by Del. James W. Gilchrist (D-Montgomery), would allow developers and builders to resume buying “credits” from “forest mitigation banks” created by farmers and other landowners who agree to preserve the required acreage. Planners in some counties had allowed that practice for decades but stopped it in the fall, following the attorney general’s opinion that it was improper.

Without that option, some local planners said, some development proposals couldn’t move forward.

Critics, including environmental groups, said preserving forest without requiring that new trees be planted wouldn’t allow the state to reach its goal of “no net loss” of forest.

Maryland lawmakers debate how to replace trees lost to development

The bill would also require a state study of the effectiveness of the Forest Conservation Act in protecting tree canopy and direct the state to plant 5 million trees over 10 years. Those provisions helped win environmental groups’ support.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is expected to sign the legislation, which his administration supported. The Department of Natural Resources said the “highly successful” program of developers buying credits to preserve existing forest had protected 5,365 acres.

Ben Alexandro, water program director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the legislation, particularly the addition of 5 million new trees, is a “good steppingstone” until the legislature can provide a “comprehensive fix” of the Forest Conservation Act.

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