What little forest remains along Forest Drive apparently will soon shrink much further, as two development projects are planned for the last large wooded tracts on the thoroughfare.
I’m resigned to losing some of these woods, and gaining more congestion on the road whose name suggests tranquility. But each tree lost in the city is a potential policy setback.
Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen has committed to increasing the tree canopy in Annapolis. Also, intact forest has high economic, ecological and cultural value. They filter runoff, sequester carbon and provide other benefits.
Heck, they make life in a city more pleasant.
The state Forest Conservation Act is supposed to minimize forest clearing in Maryland. But historically, the law has only slowed the cutting.
In effect since 1993, the law requires municipalities and counties to protect forests from development at all costs. Developers are only supposed to cut forests after they’ve protected as many acres as possible with a long list of tree-saving strategies provided by the state.
Once the local government is convinced the builder has exhausted every technical means possible to save trees, he is allowed to apply a formula for how many of the remaining acres he can clear.
But in reality, the law gives local officials lots of discretion to approve forest cutting.
In fiscal year 2011 Annapolis permitted developers to cut down nearly 18 acres of forest, spare 13.5 acres and plant six. For two years prior to that activity was minimal.
From 1993 to 2007 the city permitted developers to cut down about half the forest on their projects, or 56 acres compared to 52 acres spared. The city also required 46 acres to be planted.
So on paper, the city has replanted a good portion of forests cleared. But I know planted urban woodlands often struggle to survive.
Annapolis’ rate of forest clearing is about the same rate allowed in most Maryland municipalities in the 15-year period reviewed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and about the same as the rest of Anne Arundel County.
But I noticed some towns and counties have a significantly higher rate of saving trees. Easton allowed developers to cut only 28 percent during that period, Rockville 35 percent.
Statewide, counties allowed developers to clear 37 percent of forests, and some counties, such as Talbot and Somerset, permitted as little as 17 percent and 14 percent clearance.
Those are some significant contrasts in how local governments apply the law. Could Annapolis get tougher with developers?
Incidentally, case law has established that profit margin isn’t a justification for the developer clearing more forest. A developer can’t just say the numbers don’t work unless I clear half the forest.
Statewide local and state governments allowed developers to cut down more than 68,000 acres of forest from 1993 to 2007. Builders left alone or planted about twice that amount, but it’s still a net loss of about 47,000 forested acres in the state, or 3,100 acres a year lost on average.
City officials will make judgments in the coming weeks and months about how to apply the Forest Conservation Act to the Reserve at Quiet Waters and The Village at Crystal Spring.
About 100 acres of forest exist between the two properties. On the Crystal Spring property the developer has said he wants to take about 60 percent of the woods (46 acres) and replant next to nothing. I have not seen specific numbers for the Reserve.
The Annapolis Environmental Commission, a volunteer board with a charter to advise the city on environmental issues, has been discussing with city staff the possibility of requiring developers to save as much forest as is technically possible—the aim of the Forest Conservation Act—or at least to push the envelope of forest retention.
Staff has not made any official recommendations to date.
A representative of the developer of the Reserve project was kind enough recently to take members of the Environmental Commission (I’m a new member) on a tour of that property just south and west of the intersection of Forest Drive with Bay Ridge Avenue.
I must admit the forest I saw there is not exactly pristine: relatively new growth trees, with lots of recent damage from wind, and perhaps insects. Trash is piled in many places.
But for a city, any tree is virtually priceless. That’s how the average citizen feels. And while I understand city officials need to balance the needs of the developer with the needs of citizens, I hope officials will do everything in their authority to allow as little clearing as possible.
Let’s make Annapolis at least as environmentally savvy as Rockville or Easton. Saving as many trees as possible now will pay off long term.