Uprooting a Flawed Law


Environmentalists are rightly vigilant about development that threatens precious natural resources. In stating their case, they argue that new building projects belong in urbanized areas where development is already concentrated. Why, then, the contradictory stance of environmental groups toward Baltimore County's reforestation law?

The law has come under scrutiny since objections to it were raised by businessmen such as James T. Dresher Jr, who wants to build a restaurant on a parking lot at Eastpoint Mall.

He has no problem with county landscaping rules that would require him to spend $20,000 to plant vegetation at the site. But he complains -- justifiably so -- about the county law that would make him pay an extra $4,000 into the local fund established last January to replace trees cut down for construction projects. He says it would be unfair to make him contribute toward tree replacement when he wouldn't be touching one existing tree -- and all that after he shells out $20,000 to add hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers to what is now a lifeless stretch of asphalt. Incidents such as these do little to improve Baltimore County's reputation as a bad place in which to do business.

The county law grew out of a 1992 state mandate that local jurisdictions create reforestation funds. The General Assembly ruled that when developers couldn't re-plant on or off their building locations, they would have to pay into a reforestation fund 10 cents for each square foot on the site. Most jurisdictions, though, set higher fees. Baltimore and Harford counties charge 40 cents; Baltimore City charges 30 cents.

The law's intent, to replenish the tree supply, is wise. But as the Dresher situation shows, the law is flawed. Tonight, the Baltimore County Council will try to fix the defect when it considers legislation to waive the reforestation fees for any developer building on an impervious surface (as in Mr. Dresher's case) or on previously developed, treeless land. We urge the council to pass the bill.

Environmentalists view this as weakening a strong law. What they ought to see is that the bill would help meet their oft-stated goal of containing economic growth in areas already developed, such as urbanized, job-hungry sections of the east county. Thus suburban sprawl would be slowed. Virgin land would be spared the construction of new buildings, roads and other nature-unfriendly amenities. This county proposal is an initiative environmentalists should be backing, not knocking.

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