What do you Think? Forest Conservation in Annapolis and Beyond
May 22, 2017 12:18PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Jesse Iliff, South RIVERKEEPER®
I live toward the end of what has become the ironically named Forest Drive in Annapolis. The old timers in the area will tell you that back in the ’50s and ’60s, Forest Drive was a more pastoral thoroughfare, a sylvan street connecting the bayside resort areas of Bay Ridge and Highland Beach at the tip of the Annapolis Neck to the rest of the world. However, the proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and the City of Annapolis was too attractive to go unnoticed for long, and development pressure has advanced in the ensuing decades. Now there is precious little forest left along Forest Drive, and what can (or should) be done with it is a source of bitter debate among residents on the Neck and the rest of the City.
The debate over how to protect the Neck’s remaining forests reached a flash point with the proposed development at Crystal Spring, where Forest Drive intersects with Spa Road. Although the Crystal Spring property has been eyed for some kind of development for more than 20 years, controversy didn’t reach its peak until 2012 when the developers of the project submitted the first of many Forest Stand Delineations as they are required to do under the State’s Forest Conservation Act (FCA).
Scrutiny of the development’s Forest Stand Delineation was intense, and it quickly became clear that the City of Annapolis’ process for reviewing such proposals was flawed. The City code merely stated that it adopted the State act, without any localized requirements. The process of appealing adverse decisions was murky, and nobody in City government seemed to know what authority they had to require changes to any of the submittals required under the Act. Another Forest Drive development, known as Parkside Preserve (an overture to its proximity to Quiet Waters Park, and itself an ironic name given the proposal to clear 14 acres of forest) drew similar scrutiny for its Forest Stand Delineation. In fact, that proposal was the subject of litigation that is ongoing in the Court of Special Appeals. (Full disclosure, the undersigned was one of the attorneys involved in this case in Circuit Court).
In light of the mounting attention to the City’s implementation of the Forest Conservation Act, some improvements to the City Code have sprung up to clarify the process and hopefully spare more trees from development. In September of last year, the City Council unanimously approved the City’s first localized Forest Conservation Act provisions. (Previously, the City Code had simply stated that it adopted the State law). Among other things, the new ordinance protects trees of smaller diameter than the State law (24in. instead of 30in. diameter), shrinks the size of forest that can be considered “contiguous” (and thus warranting stricter protection) from 100 acres to 20, and raised the fine for non-compliance with the law.
However, some gaps were left unfilled in the City’s new law. For instance, the appeal process was still unclear, and environmentalists lamented the lack of a “no net loss” of forest cover policy that would help the City meet its stated goal of 50 percent tree canopy. Regarding “no net loss” the State DNR caused that problem by stating it would not approve such a plan, despite an Attorney General opinion clearly stating that local governments have authority to institute stricter requirements than those in the State FCA. (Attempts to clarify the reasoning for this decision with Marian Honeczy, DNR Manager of Urban Forestry programs, were unsuccessful.) More recently, on February 13th, the City Council held a public hearing to further improve the City’s FCA by clarifying the appeals process, and instituting a “no net loss” policy in spite of DNR’s objection.
Indeed, the fight over forest conservation in Annapolis has spilled over Forest Drive and into the State House, with environmental advocates such as your author pushing for improvements to the FCA at the State level. If passed, Senate Bill 365 (House Bill 599) will require that any tree clearing above one acre be mitigated by replanting one acre of trees for each acre cleared. Currently the FCA only requires a quarter-acre replanted for each acre cleared. The State bill also allows for an increased fee-in-lieu of replanting when replanting is impracticable. Another bill, (SB 29/HB 617) would change the FCA to explicitly allow what the Attorney General has already confirmed (but that DNR has denied the City of Annapolis)—that a local jurisdiction may implement more stringent reforestation requirements than the State FCA requires.
The state-level bills have attracted some attention in the capital, with a rally on February 22nd drawing about 70 people together to speak up for more tree cover, and robust questions from State delegates later that afternoon at a hearing in the Environment & Transportation Committee. More education is necessary though, as it was apparent that some delegates still harbor doubts that Maryland has enough open area to reforest at the higher ratio (which it does).
Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Forests are the lungs of the land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” For too long now, Annapolis has been a two-packs-a-day kind of town. Do you believe the Senate, House, and City should approve the recent attempts to protect our common lungs and kick the habit of overdevelopment? Do you believe in “an acre for an acre” replanting of trees?