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The backyard was once full of dead pine trees that were removed at great cost. Mary "Betsie" Russell has a forest conservation easement for her Severna Park home's backyard that was previously a Christmas tree farm that has caused her a lot of time, worry and money to deal with.
The backyard was once full of dead pine trees that were removed at great cost. Mary "Betsie" Russell has a forest conservation easement for her Severna Park home's backyard that was previously a Christmas tree farm that has caused her a lot of time, worry and money to deal with. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Mary “Betsie” Russell’s Severna Park neighborhood used to be a Christmas tree farm. She bought her property knowing that after it had already been fully developed.

She saw the thick wall of self-sufficient Christmas trees in her backyard as an advantage — less yard to take care of. She knew the trees were in a forest conservation easement, but she did not know what that meant until the trees started dying.

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“What I want people to understand is that buyers need to be able to read [the forest conservation easement] word for word and understand,” Russell said. Several thousand dollars and three years of undue stress later, Russell wishes she had.

She knows her situation is unique — most people don’t have a former Christmas tree farm in their backyard — but she doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she has. And she is worried a forest conservation bill drafted by County Executive Steuart Pittman will repeat that mistake unless it mandates potential buyers read the full easement before purchase.

So far, the conversation around the bill has focused on development. But it also could also impact homeowners depending on the size of their property, and whether they have a forest conservation easement on their property. These changes include increased fees and fines.

The bill was drafted by Pittman’s administration to strengthen protections for trees in the county and promote revitalization efforts. It updates legislation that has been in place since the 90s by increasing the amount of forest that must be conserved on a property, increasing the tree replanting requirements, increasing the fee for violating the fee-in-lieu of replanting prices, the price for abandoning a forest conservation easement.

The bill has drawn dozens of county residents during two different public comment periods and has been through two rounds of amendments. Unless the council adopts more amendments, members are expected to vote on the bill during the Monday night meeting.

“This affects everyone in the county this is not just a developer bill or a big business bill,” said Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena. “The easy way to paint this is that it’s just big bad developers who are cutting down these trees. But this impacts individual people.”

Forest conservation easements are subject to the forest conservation bill. Current language in the bill would increase prices for abandoning an easement or clearing in violation of the bill.

“Developers know the rules — this is their business, they’re doing everything they can to not get fined,” Volke said. “The people who are getting fined are the homeowners who don’t know.”

Local homeowners who don’t have forest conservation easements can still be affected by this bill, depending on the size of their property.

Matt Johnston, the county’s environmental policy director, outlined the potential homeowner impacts for The Capital:

Anyone who owns more than 40,000 square feet should be aware of potential impacts of the bill, which would only go into effect on properties that are larger than .918 acres, or 40,000 square feet.

On properties larger than 40,000 square feet, cutting down less than 20,000 square feet is still allowed without penalty. Beyond 20,000 square feet, a property owner is subject to the entire forest conservation bill. But for plots of land that are smaller than 5 acres, the thresholds would not change with the proposed legislation. The thresholds in current law will carry over for plots of land that are smaller than 5 acres.

Plots of land that are larger than 5 acres are subject to the entire forest conservation bill, including the updated conservation thresholds.

Johnston said he doesn’t think the bill will impact many individual people in the county, but said that homeowners should always call the county permits office before making changes to their landscape.

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“Call before you chop,” Johnston said. “Call before you make big changes.”

Russell called the county as soon as the trees started turning grey, and she said county officials have helped her through every step of the way.

“The county has bent over backwards to help me,” she said.

Still, she’s had to spend thousands of dollars from her retirement fund removing the dying trees, and more replanting to try to salvage her yard.

Eventually, Russell plans to work with the county to abandon the easement, which will cost her. Over the past three years, she said she has spent around $30,000 on tree removal, replanting, and costs relating to abandonment. And she still doesn’t know what the total price will be.

Under the current law, the price for abandoning a forest conservation easement is $0.75 per square foot.

But the proposed bill increases the price of abandoning a forest conservation easement to $1.25 per square foot. If the easement is more than 35-feet wide and 10,000 square feet, the price for abandoning the easement is $1.50 per square foot.

“If this bill passes, I am grandfathered into the 75 cents a square foot, but my real concern is for the average consumer,” Russell said.

Russell is worried homeowners don’t realize how this bill affects them, and spoke during the public comment period at the Nov. 4 County Council meeting to explain why it’s important that prospective buyers get a full copy of the easement at the time of purchase, and why it’s important they understand the law.

“I don’t think the public at large understands how they could be affected by this bill,” Volke said. “This is not a bite-sized bill, you cannot just grab this and immediately understand it.”

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