The Anne Arundel County Council is ready to pick up where they left off on the forest conservation bill at Monday night’s meeting.
They’ve had two weeks to digest the hours-long public comment period that took place at the last meeting and check-in with their constituents about where they stand on the controversial legislation.
This week’s meeting will likely be spent attempting to amend the bill into something more county residents are comfortable with. Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, said she expects amendments to target the clearcutting threshold and the fee-in-lieu price.
Alison Prost, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, warned the council against accepting amendments that would weaken the bill as it stands.
“A failure to act now in a meaningful way would put Anne Arundel at risk of losing its last remaining intact forests,” Prost said in a statement Friday. "We urge the council to approve a strong bill, rather than punt the county’s long-term forest loss problem to a future Council, or worse, our children.”
Once the bill’s been amended, the council won’t be able to vote on it until at least Nov. 4.
“What this bill is going to do is end the deforestation, clearcutting, and over-development we’re seeing on forested land,” said Matthew Johnston, the county’s director of environmental policy, “and refocus that same amount of development, and market demand, into areas we actually want it.”
The county lost 2,775 acres of trees between 2010 and 2017, according to data from the Chesapeake Bay Program. Excluding Allegany and Garret counties, tree loss in Anne Arundel County accounted for 41% of tree loss in Maryland during the period.
Pittman has said the bill would help focus development efforts on areas that are already transit heavy — where he’d like to see growth in Anne Arundel County.
“We think this is the right bill at the right time,” Johnston said.
Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, isn’t so sure. He’s raised concerns about how these changes might impact the county’s economy.
Many people in his district rely on the construction industry to make a living, he said, and he said he’s concerned about how this legislation could impact their job security.
How also wonders what would happen if even half of the county’s revenue from development dried up. Volke asked, where would that money come from?
Although he said he’s seen his district nearly evenly split on this bill, ”If this means you have to pay a certain amount more in taxes, are you willing to do it?”
He said he expects to see amendments introduced to change the bill in either direction on Monday night. He’s hoping the council will work together to craft a solution that still protects forests.
“No one is arguing that there’s not a problem,” Volke said.
Johnston said the bill isn’t necessarily trying to discourage development — it’s about smart growth.
Fiedler said she is supportive of strengthening the county’s forest conservation laws as they stand, but not necessarily strengthening the bill that is being proposed now.
In her district, she said, “there’s definitely clear support of it, and that’s not surprising to me at all.”
But Fiedler’s constituents have raised some concerns about the bill, as it exists now. If the bill incentivizes development in areas that are already paved — as opposed to forested areas — will some areas of the county be forced to sacrifice building height limits?
As the council begins workshopping this bill, she said she’d like to see residential building height limits preserved.
Fiedler also raised questions about what may happen to developers who already have projects underway in the county if this bill becomes a law.
That concern was expected, said Johnston — the Pittman administration planned for it. Anyone who was previously approved for a development project by the county will be allowed to pursue it, and won’t be required to comply with stricter rules.
As it stands right now, the bill would strengthen three aspects of county development rules in place since the ‘90s.
It reduces the acreage a developer can cut down without penalty, and doubles the replanting they have to do if they cross that threshold. The exact numbers depend on zoning. It also credits the developer for conserving any amount of forest beyond the threshold, which then slightly lowers their replanting requirement.
If a developer passes the threshold but chooses not to replant the trees lost, they can pay a fee instead. Under the current legislation, that fee is 40-50 cents per square foot, depending on how the area is zoned.
Under the new bill, it would jump to $3 per square foot, a number Matthew Johnston, county environmental policy director, said was deliberately calculated to reflect the cost of forest in Anne Arundel County.