Council and stakeholders sort through new tree bills
Debate Begins on Tree Conservation Legislation for Montgomery County
By Agnes Blum
Writer for Conservation Montgomery
County residents cherish lush canopy and tree-lined streets.
Montgomery County's tree-lined streets are four-season wonders. They create allées of bursting blossoms in the spring and provide much-needed shade in the scorching summer, while offering fiery hues in the fall and a welcomed windbreak in the winter.
But unless two bills before the County Council are passed, the county is in danger of losing even more of its tree canopy, and having its roadways further denuded.
Before the council are two bills -- 41-12 and 35-12 -- intended to protect the county's trees. The first bill is an attempt to save trees that are in county rights-of-way during repair and construction projects. State law requires a removal permit. What is new about Bill 41-12 is authority for the county to require protection for trees along our streets. The bill would require a permit from the county for removal of a healthy tree if there is no alternative but to remove it. A fee attached to a county permit will be used for a fund for replanting street and roadside trees. The fee would not apply to trees in severe decline or trees that are dying and hazardous to safety and property.
The second bill aims to save, and expand, the county's tree canopy by minimizing the loss of trees during development, especially in smaller projects and private lots. A fund would be set up to pay for new plantings. Regulations will be written to address tree protection and options for building around trees.
Pepco and other utility companies would not be subject to the bills since utilities are regulated by the State Public Service Commission.
While local environmentalists enthusiastically support 41-12, many worry that 35-12 does not go far enough.
The proposed penalties in Bill 35-12 for developers or homeowners who cut down trees, especially healthy, old, well-established ones, are far too low, according to some. Environmentalists would like to see stronger incentives to preserve older trees written into the bill.
Clearing every lot of every tree results in cumulative tree canopy loss throughout the county.
"The bill needs work," said Ginny Barnes, adding that the bill needs to allow "additional mitigation options such as credit for protecting trees and credit for replanting shade or significant trees onsite.
"I would like to see more than the tree fund in Bill 35-12. Protective tree legislation is a big step toward changing perceptions about the value of trees to ecological balance, mental and physical health and public safety," Barnes said.
While the county overall has a tree canopy of almost 50 percent, many urban and developed areas have far fewer trees. The recommended canopy level for urban areas is 25 percent, according to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, but many areas of Montgomery County don't come close.
The White Flint area clocks in at 19 percent, while downtown Silver Spring has only a 14 percent tree canopy and the Montgomery Hills neighborhood a mere 8 percent. The Long Branch community has the second lowest canopy level, at only 13 percent.
"We are amazed to see the destruction of hundreds of mature trees around the local area," said Paul Hlavinka, who spoke on behalf of the Muddy Branch Alliance at a Council hearing on January 17th. "We cannot stay ahead of the curve and expect citizens to plant more trees than are taken down."
Hlavinka and others say it is time the county enacted these tree protections. In 1991, the county passed the Forest Conservation Law, which regulates management of forests during development on properties that are larger than 40,000 square feet. But in the past two decades, development has shifted from larger lots upcounty to smaller lots in more urban and densely populated areas. The disposal of trees on these smaller developments is unregulated, which supporters hope Bill 35-12 will remedy.
"We stand at a crossroads with respect to climate change," said Arlene Bruhn at the council meeting. "More traffic makes our urbanizing areas centers for pollution. Large expanses of brick and concrete transform densely built commercial zones into unhealthy heat islands. We need trees to stay cool in the summer and absorb CO2. The cheapest way to mitigate climate change is to plant trees."
The problem is that a tree does not always equal a tree. As Mark Buscaino, executive director of Casey Trees and a certified arborist, pointed out, replacing a 30-inch diameter tree with a sapling is not a fair trade.