Local forest advocates seek alternatives to development

When Myrtle Young died just shy of her 100th birthday last year, her neighbors in the historic Elkridge community of Lawyers Hill were saddened by the loss of one of the neighborhood's longest-standing stewards.

They were also worried about losing the environmental legacy she'd helped protect in the area for decades.

Despite increasing efforts at the federal, state and local levels to sustain forested land in the region, developments have continued to pop up in many formerly wooded areas around the Patapsco Valley State Park, and Young's death brought the threat of further development particularly close to home.

The nine-acre property she had long lived on stretches from the center of the Lawyers Hill neighborhood out to a wide swath of property, closer to Washington Boulevard and just up the hill from the park's Avalon Area, that is currently being developed.

The neighbors feared Young's family would sell her land to those developers as well.

"We knew it would be snapped up by a developer, and said, 'Uh oh,'" said Cathy Hudson, a neighbor and local preservationist.

With the fate of the property up in the air, tension was high.

Then, one afternoon, Hudson saw Young's daughter, Sue Hays, by her mother's old mailbox, and they started chatting about the process of cleaning out a loved one's home. Hays told Hudson she was supposed to be meeting with Realtors soon. Hudson caught her breath.

Then, trying to stay calm, Hudson asked if she could take a look at the home herself, she recalled recently.

During a walk around the house, Hays expressed an interest in preserving her mother's property. Hudson went home and discussed the issue with her husband, Tiff, a computer scientist with the federal government who recently had received a substantial inheritance. The couple began eagerly discussing making an offer on the property but decided to sleep on it. The next day, they were like "kids on a Christmas morning" thinking about the potential purchase, and wrote up a contract, Hudson said.

The couple settled on the property with Hays in April.

"You could just feel the collective sigh of relief in the neighborhood," Hudson said.

Hudson is now working to place an easement on the property through the help of the Rockburn Land Trust, of which she is a board member. That will add the nine acres to about 200 other acres under easement with the trust, including Hudson's Old Lawyers Hill property, where she lives, and a handful of other neighbors' properites in the Lawyers Hill community.

Land cleared for 91 homes

The trust's efforts come at a time when wooded lands adjacent to or near the park are rapidly being developed.

At the edge of Hudson's nine-acre property are 76 acres that have been largely clear-cut to make way for 91 single-family homes.

Similar projects are being developed along Landing Road, Ilchester Road and College Avenue, as well as along Hilltop Road and Thistle Road across the river in Catonsville.

While development in the eastern part of the county and within existing local infrastructure makes sense from an environmental perspective, because it is smarth growth as opposed to sprawl, officials said, local preservationists said forest lands should be eyed with preservation in mind.

"We realize this is a smart-growth area, and a lot of the area will be densely developed, but even New York City has Central Park," said Hudson, who is also a member of Howard County's Environmental Sustainability Board.

Kit Valentine, president of the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, said his largest problem isn't development, but clear-cutting land when efforts could be made to preserve smaller plots of mature trees throughout new developments.

"They don't take out selected trees, they clear-cut the area, and that's what has me upset," he said.

The clear-cutting is particularly frustrating because it undercuts his own group's efforts to protect the local environment, like its planting of dozens of trees and bushes around a stream on the Patapsco Horse Farm Nov. 5.

"Our planting of one acre, no matter how beneficial we thought it would be in cleaning up the Patapsco River and the (Chesapeake) Bay, is a bitty effort to restore against a massive effort to destroy," he wrote in an email to state and county officials and a reporter after seeing the Hilltop development Nov. 11. "We have got to stop clear cutting entire forests to build homes or public buildings. Somewhere there has to be someone who can see and stop this insanity."

There are plenty of people trying.

Stemming the losses

At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required the region's states and local jurisdictions to go on "pollution diets" as part of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) initiative, the goal of which is to ensure reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Bay in coming years.

That has translated into a state "watershed implementation plan" that includes local efforts to restore buffer zones around streams and other waterways, including forests and parks.

That plan is just one piece of a much larger state effort to address forest preservation and sustainability that began in large part with the Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009, which prompted research into how best to stem the tide of forest development and created the state's Sustainable Forestry Council.

In October, the council released a preliminary draft of a "No Net Loss of Forest Policy," the final version of which was due to the state legislature last week, said Steven Koehn, director of the state's forest service.

Koehn said the policy report is "supposed to set the stage for what we are going to call 'no-net laws,'" or forest protection legislation that individual legislators may draft after reviewing the report's findings.

Those findings show the state lost 7,000 acres of forest per year between 1950 and 2011, and that, because of its high standard of living, will continue to attract more residents.

The report defines the council's "no-net-loss of forest policy" as "the stabilization of the rate of loss by 2020 with the goal of maintaining the state's existing 40% forest coverage," and proposes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources "pursue an integrated set of actions and measures that seek to stabilize forest loss."

The report speaks to the importance of both protecting "high quality forests" and off-setting forest loss whenever it does occur through reforestation in other areas.

"If we don't start to address this issue of forest loss, our hopes of restoring the Chesapeake Bay to anything close to what it used to be is really going to be an uphill battle," Koehn said.

At the county level, the Office of Environmental Sustainability has taken the lead in creating programs to address forest sustainability as well, county officials said.

One program is the county's new Green Infrastructure Plan, which stems from a similar state plan and will place priority on preserving green "hubs" like forests — including Patapsco Valley State Park and the Patapso River — as well as green "corridors" that connect those hubs, officials said. The plan then will be used to make future decisions on zoning, transportation and development.

Another is the county's Green Neighborhoods initiative, which is designed to reward developers and builders for projects that meet green standards and win LEED certification. The first such neighborhood, dubbed Locust Chapel, is being built on Ilchester Road, just up the hill from the park.

Marsha McLaughlin, director of the county's department of planning and zoning, said these efforts show an ever-increasing commitment at the county level to sustaining forests.

She also said the current residential-environmental zoning in many of the areas around the Patapsco River, which requires 50 percent open space, helps protect a good amount of forest even when some is cleared.

"I think we're in pretty good shape, but could we be better? Sure," she said. "I think we'd like to see more things protected."

The county also will fully cooperate with the state if and when it takes up new initiatives inspired by the no-net-loss policy, McLaughlin said.

Cooperation is essential

Hudson said the county has done a fair job of taking up the issue of forest sustainability, and that newly strengthened storm water regulations at the county level, from which many of the developments under way are exempt, will help diminish the act of clear-cutting in the future.

She and others — including Valentine and Bruce Clopein, president of the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park — said cooperation with the county and the state will be critical in ensuring a sustainable approach to local development.

Still, Hudson said, permanently protecting land not already publicly owned largely will fall on the shoulders of the local residents who own it, which is why she has been pushing the value of easements in recent years.

The Rockburn Land Trust has sent letters to residents who live near the park and held public get-togethers to talk to local landowners about easements and how they work.

Some say they plan to sell to developers, some want more information, and some are convinced an easement would be a good fit for them, which is encouraging, she said.

When people are willing to decrease the value of their land in order to ensure its natural character is preserved, that's a good sign for the future, she said.

"Money is not the goal. The goal is something better for future generations, and that's huge," she said.

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