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Developers stumble on red tape of law requiring tree replanting


The idea was simple: Cut as few trees as possible, and if there are no trees on the lot you are developing, plant some.

But Harford planners say they've run into obstacles trying to enforce the law, which took effect Jan. 1, in agricultural and rural areas. And county developers say the red tape on large projects is giving them nightmares.

The law requires developers to plant a quarter-acre of new trees for every acre cut down and to plant the new trees within one or two growing seasons after each phase of a development is completed.

If the number of existing trees on the site fails to meet a certain percentage, which varies according to the site's zoning, the law requires a developer to plant new trees.

"The vision people had was of these big developers coming in and grading a site and cutting all these trees down, and they were trying to stop that," said William G. Carroll, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

"But when you apply this bill [law] in different situations, it doesn't always come out the way you think it will," he added.

Take, for example, the landowner who wants to subdivide 20 acres of agricultural farmland near Norrisville into two 10-acre lots on which two homes will be built.

As county planners have interpreted the tree preservation law, that landowner would have to go through the same process as a major developer: counting trees on the lot, identifying any to be cut, and taking inventory of the shrubs and other small plants on the site, said Mr. Carroll.

In addition, the landowner will probably end up planting 4 acres of trees because the plot didn't have enough, he said.

"It's understandable. We get people in here who say, 'Gee whiz, I just want to make two lots and I'm only going to use 4 acres of the land for houses and we have to go through all this?' " said Mr. Carroll. "It does seem like a bit much to make them go through all this."

Developers and consultants say the new law has other glitches.

"What was a good idea, with all the red tape and regulations, has turned into a consultant's nightmare and a planner's nightmare," said Kevin McBride, a landscape architect and planner for the Bel Air-based Morris and Ritchie consulting firm.

"I'm allowed to cut trees down, but you have to document to

such an extreme, it's like asking, 'How much sand was in the sand dune before the hurricane hit?' It doesn't really matter. The question is what can we do to protect the sand dune before the hurricane hits, but right now we're just counting grains of sand."

One problem, said Mr. McBride, is that the Planning and Zoning Department has not finished writing the policy guidelines to put the law into effect.

"We have to file a final forest conservation plan [which states how many trees will be saved on a site] when we're getting approval for preliminary development plans, but we have no information from the county to tell us how to do it," he said.

"And it doesn't make sense to file a final conservation plan at that stage because it's really just guesswork," he added.

Another problem is that the law requires developers to replant with native vegetation.

"They won't let us use an improved variety of a tree, and often the nurseries don't grow the original type," said Mr. McBride. "The industry isn't geared up for this."

But Mr. Carroll noted that the law, which comes into play only if more than 40,000 square feet of trees are to be disturbed, has been in effect for just six months.

"Whenever you do a complicated new program, you have to see where it does work and where it doesn't, and then you correct it," said Mr. Carroll.

"We think a number of these problems can be resolved by changing our interpretation of the law. We're adjusting the policy, for example, to let the guy with two 10-acres lots be exempt. We're still working out what the standards and guidelines."

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