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How come HoCo has been out of compliance with the state forest conservation regulations for over 2 decades?!? The simple answer: No administration has been brave enough to even put forward a bill, knowing how controversial it would be. Until now!

How come a forest con bill stirs up controversy? Simplistically, environmental advocates seek to preserve the natural beauty and functionality of forests, while developers regard trees as something that gets in the way of “improving” the land with structures—at the maximum density possible, of course. Today developers regard the remaining trees as an expensive nuisance, something to be removed in order to provide a blank slate on which a computer can generate an uninspiring site plan that looks pretty much like every other. It has not always been like this.

There was a time when developers like Jim Rouse sought to preserve as many trees as possible ON a residential lot. They recognized that mature tree(s) would enable an individual lot to command a premium price. I’m told that in Columbia’s early days, signs were erected which said, “Other than you, this tree is the most valuable thing on this lot.”

Much of what has contributed to soulless, treeless development today is the declaration by developers— embraced by the DPZ and DPW– that “this is how we build today.” “This” means we strip and regrade and go for maximum density over good design or even good marketing sense. (Real example: a proposed site plan for a parcel with forested parkland on 3 sides, with a river on two—with NO units facing either feature!)

Shame on YOU Howard County

I applaud County Executive Ball for declaring through this bill that it is a new day, that site development plans for example must accommodate specimen trees. No more identify-them, get-a-waiver, and cut-them-down! Taking on the task of getting this bill developed and passed is consistent with his other environmental actions such as signing on to We’re Still In, protecting pollinators, and directing the planting of 44,000 trees this year.

But how come this bill was developed without the input/assistance of environmental advocates and the development community? While both ‘sides’ will complain, this may have been a stroke of genius, which made producing a forest conservation bill possible. While I’ve personally embraced the value of ‘having a seat at the table’ I have also witnessed how unproductive a process that can be. Recent examples include the APFO Commission, the Mulching Commission, and the Clarion Development Regulation Study. In the case of the first two- many, many sessions resulted in little agreement or change in the final report. In the case of the third example—many, many sessions resulted in an exhaustive report of recommendations from a consultant with the process stopped there. When everyone is at the table with a blank canvas…. it reminds me of the saying that ‘a zebra was a horse created by a committee’.

Without Josh Feldmark, head of the Office of Community Sustainability taking the ‘keeping it in the office’ approach, the bill could have been ‘dead on arrival’ or the effort simply abandoned. Admittedly, I am among the first to suspect nefarious activity behind closed doors, but this administration has put my mind at ease with the process employed in this case.

How come my change of heart? Refer to the administration testimony submitted on the Council’s website  for a detailed summary of the changes and features. (I highly recommend reading this to help prepare letters of support or testimony.)

Bill Mahoney at the OCS was tasked with painstakingly comparing the new bill with the current regulations. The nine page color-coded chart saved me days trying to do a side by side comparison, and made it clear which provisions go beyond just compliance with state law. In addition, the OCS actually reviewed site plans from 2013 to 2018 to see what difference the proposed changes would make. This kind of testing is valuable beyond measure to discern any unintended consequences or need for fine tuning!

The result is a bill which goes beyond “the minimum daily requirement” to turn a phrase. Given the two decades of non-compliance and the research on the critical role of forest retention and reforestation as tools to fight climate change, going beyond the minimum—to make up for lost time and ‘the sins of the past’– is indeed warranted.

I’m pleased that a coalition of 16 organizations has signed on to supporting and suggesting further strengthening measures to the bill. This is appropriate given the sky-is-falling counter arguments which can be anticipated from the development community (builders, real estate professionals, investors). One can expect to hear the same dire warnings of housing shortages (especially affordable ones due to higher prices), and total economic collapse. These scripted arguments hold no more water than the ridiculous assertion that ‘resulting longer commutes will pollute the air’. Clearly they disregard the fact that mature trees are needed to sequester carbon and produce the air we need to breathe…..

But the truly offensive issue to the development community is that forest conservation potentially reduces the buildable space on a property. That correlates to fewer residential units or less square footage to rent in a commercial unit, thereby less profit margin. But just as developers were subsidized with ridiculously inadequate school impact fees for decades, so too has the county subsided their profits by not having forest conservation regulations compliant with state law. Worse yet, our HoCo government failed to enforce the lesser ones we do have!

IMHO the development community already owes residents of HoCo (and their children in overcrowded schools) a great debt. Now is NOT the time to subsidize them further at the sacrifice of our health and well-being, by watering down this legislation or failing to respect the lack of tree equity in the densely populated eastern part of HoCo.
Previous administrations and department heads permitted—even encouraged– the short sighted destruction of our forests through the over use of waivers, administrative adjustments, etc. for the mythical income of additional property taxes.

Taxpayers are aware that many public officials have been selling out the public’s health and quality of life for political contributions. They will be watching who is invited to speak at the Council work session, any resulting amendments, any delays, and the voting. Many residents will be adding their name to The People’s Voice online petition to ask our State Legislators to support a Howard County local Bill to stop campaign contributions to the positions that regulate their industry.

Please add your signature, your letter, or your voice to produce new outcomes through CB 62—and meet me on the high road,