Carroll's commissioners are proposing to make some "clerical revisions" to the county's forest conservation ordinance and, in the process, are setting off warning bells among the county's small group of environmentalists. The environmental community is afraid these minor changes are actually major revisions that will gut the law.

The proposed alteration seems small -- the word "shall" is being replaced by "may" in the ordinance's penalty section -- but the implications loom large. Some people fear that the substitution of the weaker verb signals that the county will no longer assess penalties against developers, businesses and individuals for violations.

It is particularly worrisome that this change is being proposed after the county forest conservation manager imposed a $3,649 penalty on Stauffer Funeral Homes in Mount Airy for cutting down large trees on a lot adjacent to its funeral home. Apparently, the company was upset over the fine, which actually could have amounted to $15,000 under the letter of the law.

Carroll environmentalists fear that the commissioners are getting cold feet and would rather not assess any fines against violators of the tree ordinance. They also worry (with good reason) that without the penalties, developers and others will blithely ignore the statute.

Knowledgeable lawyers point out that in the legal arena, "shall" often means "may" when it comes to imposing penalties. In criminal law, for example, the law says the penalty for murder is life imprisonment, but judges often impose lesser sentences. The same latitude is true for civil violations, lawyers say.

Despite the similarities between the two words in a legal interpretation, however, "shall" certainly carries a more authoritative connotation.

There is good reason why "Thou shalt not kill" is considered a commandment. "May," on the other hand, infers permission to take action, a softer directive.

There seems no reason for the commissioners to make this technical change, short of surrendering to pressure to weaken the tree ordinance.

They must realize that without strong penalties, developers and others won't feel the need to obey Carroll's forest conservation law, and the rest of us will suffer.

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