Hoyt (center) listens to a resident address concerns about the DEP tree legislation
Update on county tree legislation
The Next Steps....
After a long wait, the County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is almost ready to present a revised version of a bill intended to protect trees on individual lots which are not covered under the County Forest Conservation Law (FCL). The DEP embarked on an effort to draft new legislation three years ago with a goal of having the bill presented to the Council by County Executive Ike Leggett.
The initial DEP draft bill was not well-received by either the environmental or building community when it was made available for comment almost a year ago. The DEP proposal presented a cut-and-pay scenario whereby tree canopy is measured and a fee is assigned to each square foot of canopy. Under a DEP formula, the per-canopy-area set fee is then multiplied by the amount of canopy to be taken down and the county collects a total dollar amount earmarked for use in replanting new trees to replace lost canopy.
The original DEP bill also involved combining the tree legislation with the existing FCL which deals with land areas of 40,000 square feet or more. This did not bode well with the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) because, by law, forest conservation is the responsibility of the M-NCPPC. Officials at the agency felt that lodging a tree bill with a different purpose within the existing forestry bill presented complications for the regulated (building) industry and made legislation more difficult to administer. In addition, the initial version of the DEP bill proposed that a tree canopy section of legislation be administered by the county Department of Permitting Services (DPS), using DPS staff (none of whom are arborists) to implement the sediment control law. This meant that developers might be presented with an additional step in taking building plans to multiple agencies for approval.
After receiving stakeholder comments through DEP Director Bob Hoyt, the County Executive has indicated a willingness to uncouple his tree canopy proposal from the Forest Conservation Law since the two parts are to be administered by two separate agencies. According to DEP Director Hoyt, the revised draft bill will include a threshold by which developers will not be penalized for removing a certain percentage of trees that need to be removed to install stormwater management measures on a single lot or are otherwise within the footprint of a building.
"We have listened to the comments and are trying to accommodate the feedback," said Hoyt in an interview. "We would like to see the legislation be more protective, but given the resources we have to work with, we believe we can come up with a bill that is a good starting point." He added, "From an economic standpoint, any proposal that is resource-intensive would be dead on arrival when it reaches the Council."
Still an issue is DEP's proposal to allow a desktop review of site plans, meaning that no county staff would actually go out in the field to examine trees on lots less than 40,000 square feet. As it is being revised, the proposal imposes a fee for canopy loss (as yet undetermined) as the only deterrent to removing trees from smaller lots.
"It troubles me that it has taken us three years to get to this point," said Hoyt. "We know we need to get a bill over to the Council, but we hope that when we do, the bill will be a good start on the road to better tree protection in the county."
The new target date for the legislation to be sent to the County Council is in early January.
County Street Tree Bill
On a similar track is a separate bill intended to protect existing street trees in the public rights of way from damage that often occurs due to human error. Originally drafted as a stand-alone bill, protections for street trees were later advanced as part of an amendment to the Forest Conservation Law and again included permits to be administered by DPS. This amendment was to be sponsored by Councilmembers Berliner and Elrich.
Conservation Montgomery Board member Arlene Bruhn, who has been working on this bill over the past year, was informed in early November that a draft street tree bill was imminent. However, no bill or details have surfaced. In spite of a 2009 revision to the State Roadside Tree Law which enables counties to enact street tree laws that are more stringent than those of the State, the County street tree legislation continues to go forward at a snail's pace. It is still unknown which department would administer this bill and what regulations for street trees are envisioned.
"It's time to get serious about conserving and planting shade trees in our county rights of way," said Bruhn. "The importance and economic benefits of street tree shade are widely recognized. In our current economy, trees are needed more than ever."