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The Anne Arundel County Council approved 14 amendments Monday that weakened a controversial forest conservation bill designed to change laws governing the removal and replanting of trees, but County Executive Steuart Pittman said he would sign the bill into law if it passes.

Pittman’s administration drafted and proposed the bill, aimed at promoting redevelopment and revitalization and minimizing the loss of trees to development. After the changes, Pittman said he’s disappointed the legislation was weakened but still supports it.

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He said the amended bill makes improvements to the existing county forest conservation law. He said it doubles the reforestation ratio and includes meaningful increases in fees and conservation thresholds. He plans to push further for forest conservation.

“We’re going to continue to try to strengthen those protections with the General Development Plan and try to drive development into the areas where the infrastructure exists already and where no trees need to be cut down,” Pittman said. “It’s not over. We’re going to continue.”

The bill is a response to tree loss between 2010 and 2017, when Anne Arundel County accounted for 41% of tree loss in the state, excluding Allegany and Garrett counties, according to data from the Chesapeake Bay Program. And it’s an attempt to update legislation that has been in place since the ’90s.

The amended bill will appear on the Nov. 4, meeting agenda. The public will have the opportunity to comment on the changes. The council could vote on the bill that night.

Of the 25 amendments that were introduced Monday night, 14 passed. Some of these amendments clean up technical inconsistencies, and some significantly changed the spirit of the bill.

Grandfathering clause

The council members and representatives from Pittman’s office discussed the bill’s grandfathering clause at length. The original draft of the bill included a grandfathering clause that would allow any developer who had already been approved for a project by the bill’s effective date — 45 days after it is law — to continue in accordance with old laws.

After significant deliberation, the council voted to approve an amendment to the bill that extends the grandfathering deadline until Dec. 15, 2019, for anyone who has applied, regardless of whether they have been approved yet.

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, who co-sponsored this amendment, said this was about fairness to developers, who would be shocked by a “significant change in the rules” if they missed the early deadline.

The council also approved an amendment that significantly decreases the proposed fee-in-lieu prices.

Matthew Johnston, the county’s environmental policy director, said the fee-in-lieu price had been set originally at $3 per square foot to reflect the appraised price of forest in Anne Arundel County.

But the council approved an amendment that cut the fee-in-lieu price in half — bringing the price per square foot down from $3 to $1.25 for anything outside of critical or priority funding areas.

This price still varies depending on how the land is zoned, but all fee prices were lowered significantly by this amendment, except for the price of clearing in violation of the forest conservation law, which was $0.80 per square foot under current legislation, and is set at $3 per square foot in the proposed bill.

Although the council voted to decrease many of the proposed fee-in-lieu prices, Johnston said the administration is still grateful that the prices are higher than they are under current law.

Where the administration had proposed conservation threshold be determined both by land use category and the size of the land, this amendment changes the threshold to be determined not by land size, but by land use and whether it is in a priority funding area. The conservation threshold for most land use designations change slightly but remain between 5% and 15% higher than the existing law.

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The only case in which this does not apply is for agricultural and resource areas, in which the conservation threshold remains at 50% regardless of whether it is in a priority funding area.

It also maintains existing law for sites that are five acres or smaller, inside targeted growth areas, like Glen Burnie’s town center which is the focus of a revitalization effort, or for institutions like schools or libraries.

Efforts to strengthen

Several amendments designed to strengthen the bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, were shut down by the council.

Rodvien, D-Annapolis, sponsored six amendments that she said would eliminate net tree loss in the county completely.

She said she will continue to fight for what her district wants — a strong forest conservation bill.

“We need to conserve the natural lands in the county where possible,” Rodvien said. “I want to do everything I can to protect that.”

Allison Prost, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was disappointed with the council’s amendments.

“It’s one of those times you wish the rumor mill wasn’t true,” Prost said. “We’re worried we’ll see continual net loss with the changes to the bill.”

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