Anne Arundel County Steuart Pittman admits he doesn’t yet have the votes on the County Council he needs to pass his latest initiative, an overhaul of the forest conservation laws aimed at curbing what he says is rampant tree clearing for development.
With a public hearing set for Oct. 7 in Annapolis, council members have been poring over the legislation, trying to evaluate everything from whether schools should be exempted to its impact on development, land values and the tax base.
The proposal has generated such a robust debate, pitting the environmental community against development interests, that one council member left her job at a regional law firm after it issued a statement saying the legislation posed a significant threat to the economy.
“I felt for this question and other bills that we have coming up, I don’t want to limit the ability of the law firm to do what they do,” said Councilwoman Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup. “And I also don’t want the possibility that what they do could be viewed as influencing my opinions.”
Councilmembers are seeking a wide variety of information on the ordinance, which would raise rates for fees in exchange for clearing trees, conservation requirements and fines for violators.
Councilwoman Alison Pickard, D-Millersville, said she has spent more than 60 hours on the legislation, reviewing it with the council’s legal counsel. She said they are looking at the bill from every angle.
“I do believe there are some unintended consequences that we need to track down, make sure we do some pretty serious analysis about,” she said.
Pittman, a Democrat, made an overhaul of the county’s rules on clearing forest land part of his 2018 campaign for office. But in a conversation shortly after he submitted the proposal, he didn’t have the votes needed among the Democratic majority for the current version.
His proposal doubles reforestation requirements when sites are cleared above conservation thresholds, and in some cases raises the fee fivefold when a developer or builder who can’t find a way to replant.
“I wasn’t just playing politics. I’m serious about reforming the way land-use decisions are made in this county and delivering on the demands that our communities have been making for decades,” Pittman wrote in an op-ed for The Capital.
Forests have been cleared at a fast pace in the last decade, with Pittman saying it totals an average of 300 acres of forest annually in this county since 2010.
“We are less than 5 percent of the state’s landmass but are responsible for 40 percent of its forest loss. We allowed more forest to be destroyed in the last decade than Calvert, Prince George’s, Howard, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City combined<” Pittman wrote.
The ordinance would increase the threshold for how much forest must be conserved, varying between 15% and 75% depending on the zoning and size of the land. And if builders go above that threshold they would need to replant half an acre for each acre cleared, while the requirement now is a quarter.
The fee for clearing above the conservation threshold increased from 80 cents a square foot to $3. The cost could be at least twice as pricey for builders who can’t replant, with the fee-in-lieu of replacing trees outside a priority funding area changing from 50 cents per square foot to $3 per square foot.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools and other government buildings would be exempted. Land owned by the county, state or federal government accounted for about 18% of deforestation in Anne Arundel between 2013 and 2017, according to a study by the Chesapeake Conservancy.
Chris Trumbauer, a senior advisor to Pittman and a former councilman, said the administration has heard some council members have proposals that would make the bill stronger, others weaker. He said there have been productive talks about amendments.
A fiscal note on the bill said its impact on the county’s general fund can’t be determined “due to the complexity of factors affecting developer behavior and development cycles.”
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“We would like to have an open dialogue and help work out issues to the best of our ability,” Trumbauer said.
Lacey said she had questions about how the economic value of land might change, and whether schools and other government buildings should be exempted.
She also wants to look at phasing in changes over three years, saying individual landowners who may be thinking of subdividing or doing something with their property can be made anxious by sudden changes in the law.
She said she wants to have a full public discussion of the bill, even if that means an additional public hearing.
Lacey resigned from Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, LLP, last week after the firm issued a statement opposing the bill. She said she worked in a different legal specialty at the firm and decided to leave effective immediately Wednesday after the statement was published without disclosing her connection to the firm.
Lacey was a partner at a smaller firm, Levin and Curlett, LLC, which was acquired by Rosenberg at the start of the year.
A robust discussion is expected at the public hearing for the bill Oct. 7 in council chambers at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.