Monday, February 25, 2008

Understanding the Forest Conservation Bill

The first issue up is forest conservation. We've already heard the "seeing the forest for the trees" joke, so we can skip that one. The Planning Board has proposed changes (mostly cleanup) to the current Forest Conservation Law, and Councilmember Elrich has proposed various changes to that. We had our first work session on the subject on February 19, which was spent largely on trying to understand the whole thing. What does the current law entail? Who is subject to it? What is a "forest"? That sort of thing.

The law acknowledges that trees and forest cover constitute an important natural resource because they filter groundwater, reduce surface runoff, help alleviate flooding, and supply necessary habitat for wildlife, among other things. The law, therefore, is designed to prevent the loss of forest as a result of development and other land disturbing activities through procedures, standards and requirements for afforestation and reforestation as well as tree conservation projects and other forest conservation methods.

While the law supposedly applies to "forests" (wooded areas of 10,000 square feet or more) on lots 40,000 square feet or larger, it apparently is applied to smaller land areas under certain circumstances, such as with champion trees. While I am a lawyer, and have spent many years parsing this land use stuff, I am not sure the Planning Board's and/or Marc's changes help to clarify where the law applies and where it does not. It has been suggested that a separate tree ordiniance may help to straighten things out.

Do you also find the law unclear? What would be your advice for dealing with this? Because we are so busy with budget, I am not sure when we will return to this, but I'd love to have your comments now, so we can think on them.


Anonymous said...

You mention that a tree ordinance may be helpful in this situation, but I'm not sure where to find such a thing. Does the county have one I can look at? Thanks for asking our opinion.

Anonymous said...

While I am sure the intent of M-NCPPC was to "clean up" the forest conservation act, they basically removed all exemptions that had previously been put in place to protect agriculture in Montgomery County. Even after this was brought up at the hearing, those exemptions have not been returned in the language of the bill. Please make sure we are not penalized just because some unknowing down county person at Park & Planning thinks that agriculture doesn't exist in our area. We are alive and well and fighting hard to keep our lands open & green!

Jim said...

Last year the County Executive appointed a Forest Conservation Advisory Committee to address these issues. To date, the Council has not confirmed the appointments. Now the Council is considering forest conservation amendments without the citizen input that the Forest Conservation Committee could have provided. Is this not going about it backwards?

Nancy said...

No county-wide tree ordinance exists as of this moment, although I know that some councilmembers are considering one. The City of Takoma Park has one. One challenge of any tree ordinance, as I see it, is the cost of enforcing rules against well meaning residents who have a costly problem to solve (dead trees or damage to property situations). And this can raise some pretty difficult to solve neighbor to neighbor problems. (whose problem is it anyway sort of thing). I and going to ask at our next worksession what Park and Planning currently does to ensure that trees are saved in the small projects that come before it

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that you are using the Council website as a vehicle to critique another Council member's legislation. The FCL might be confusing but it is not impenetrable. If ordinary citizens can understand it and provide intelligent testimony at the public hearing, certainly the T&E Committee can make sense of it. The first session showed you are too busy counting trees to see the forest.

Councilmember Nancy Floreen said...

This effort is certainly not intended as a critique of anyone's work, but to encourage further talking if folks want to join in. As the links to the right demonstrate, the proposed legislation has a considerable
amount of detail in it that those of us who were not in it from the start need to understand. Once legislation is introduced it is always up for debate, amendment, editing, additions, subtraction etc. Usually, the public hearing is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I am hoping that this blog will encourage a less confrontational and more in-depth conversation than what we often hear in public hearings. Maybe not - we'll see. Thanks to all of you who have weighed in.

The Athens Project said...

I think the critique referred to is on an official county council page.
Perhaps he/she can log in again and be more specific.

I have used OCR on the Forest Conservation Bill PDF document so that you can search for text on it. Anyone who would like a copy can email me at

Using the text version, I found the word "baseline" was not in it and previous preservation bills have lacked such a feature.

Without a baseline, reductions in tree cover can be cumulative. If an owner can strip 25% of the trees of his or her land, but sells the land back and forth between a partner with the baseline reset at every sale, you can reduce tree cover to 75-56-42-31%. After switching hands three times, more than 2/3 of the trees have been destroyed.

Hopefully, something like this is already in place. If forest preservation is to mean anything, we can't start with a blank slate every time a public record changes.

Thanks again for sharing this input opportunity. I will be telling friends about it very soon.

Councilmember Nancy Floreen said...

The County Executive appointments to the Forest Conservation Advisory Committee are scheduled for Council confirmation on March 18. Click on "current council agenda" to the right for the full list.

Anonymous said...

We have been "victims" of the Forest Conservation Law. Not as large developers but as a

Montgomery County Citizens.

We have been subject to misrepresentations, abuse of "superior knowledge" of the law, and

financially diminished unecessarily from a department with no independent oversight and basically

an ability to do whatever they want.

The largest problem with FC Regs/Law is while there are terrific amounts of effort spent to

strengthen, define, and protect MNPCC and "trees", there is no clear and quick system in place

that requires accountabilty for the decisions that are made. This system exists now as a as

definition of a faceless bureaucracy.

As a citizen I have run into forestry professionals working at at three different firms that can only

complain about how horrible the service is and capriciously the department is run.

I have experienced this first hand and at every level of the process.

I consider myself an environmentalist, a former member the Sierra Club and longtime member of

the NRDC. I'm not a slash and burn developer.

Unless there are much, much larger, attempts made to strengthen the rights of individuals and

companies(afraid to comment on record) subject to these laws, it will only grow more punitive, one

sided and ultimately something only large corporations will be able to tolerate through litigation

and on a daily basis through their lawyers as seems to be the normal form of communication


I would also add the the way Permitting Services, The Fire Marshall's and Well and Septic offices

are run are only to be held up as the highest models of service compared with the entrenched

bureaucracy that exists at Park and Planning.

Councilmember Nancy Floreen said...

At today’s Transportation and Environment Committee, we received comments from members of the Planning Board’s Forest Conservation Task Force. In addition, the County’s Water Quality Advisory Group has expressed strong interest in this legislation and intends to assist us. The agricultural community shared concerns about regulations being restrictive to farming, while MCPS brought up cost issues. On the plus side, M-NCPPC has started implementing some new reforestation programs. Best of all, tomorrow the Council will confirm the County Executive’s appointments to his new Forest Conservation Advisory Committee. This group will have until June (while we work through the County budget) to look carefully at the various issues that have been raised as well as the significant details of the bill. I feel like these next couple of months of study by the group will yield excellent results.

Larry said...

I want to thank Nancy Floreen for being open to dialogue and advice on forest and tree issues in Montgomery County. I am chairman of the Water Quality Advisory Group. We are working hard to provide the Council and Executive with our best advice on the water quality aspects of forest/trees law, which are very important. The Water Quality Group will be meeting on June 4 with the Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee to come up with joint recommendations. In addition to encouraging us to come forward, Ms. Floreen had a lot to do with getting the Forest Conservation Advisory Committee into operation. We look forward to working with the Forest Committee. The greening of Montgomery will not be achieved without a very broad social and political consensus. Nancy Floreen's openness to dialogue and advice will go a long way to establishing that consensus.

Larry Silverman