Kudos to several Annapolis city staff for a decision that won’t make headlines, but that could save potentially tens of acres of trees from being cut down at a property on Forest Drive. In the long run that decision could improve the development project planned for the site.
The city’s Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Programs (DNEP) has largely rejected something called a Forest Stand Delineation (FSD) submitted by developers who want to build on the 110-acre property on Forest Drive. The tract contains the largest remaining forest in the city of Annapolis.
Sometimes actions taken deep in the bowels of bureaucracy can make more difference than any vote by a governing body in full public view. Real change often happens off stage in a democracy. This decision by DNEP was one of those actions.
State law requires a developer who wants to build on a large tract with lots of trees to assess the site, and report on the most ecologically important trees and “contiguous” areas of trees. The law, the Forest Conservation Act, says builders must avoid cutting down those trees, or justify why they can’t avoid it.
The developers of the proposed Crystal Spring Annapolis project on Forest Drive had attempted a sort of legal magic trick with their FSD: make the forest disappear through an incorrect interpretation of the state Forest Conservation Act. Essentially, the developers argued there were no true “contiguous” forests on the property at all. Ergo, most of the trees were not protected by state law, and thus could be cut down.
Even the casual observer driving past the tract (across from St. Martin’s Lutheran Church between Hilltop Lane and Spa Road) can see it is covered with trees. If you have any doubt drive down a public dirt road, Crystal Spring Farm Road, that bisects the property and look more closely. You’ll be amazed that such a large forest exists in Annapolis. It’s amazing. One minute you are in the mad crush of traffic that Annapolis has become in its outlying areas. The next you are in a sylvan wonderland.
The property was annexed into the city several years ago. The developers want to build hundreds of residential units, many for seniors, and also stores and a cultural center.
DNEP found numerous problems with the developer’s assessment, perhaps most importantly the claim that the amount of contiguous forests was small. “With the exception of physically isolated stands the entire site is considered a contiguous forest per Natural Resources Article 5-1607 c(ii), the department wrote in a letter to Alan Hyatt, a local attorney and partner in the Crystal Spring project.
What this means is that under state law at least 80 acres of the 110 acres of the property are considered “priority for retention and protection” during the development process. In other words, buildings, parking lots, etc. should be placed in the 30 acres of unforested land, with the 80 acres mostly saved from the bulldozer.
This is not the end of the story, however. First the Forest Stand Delineation must be finalized. Surely, the developer will fight the city’s view. Then comes an equally difficult stage.
Even though a forest is technically protected under the law, the Forest Conservation Act allows developers to cut down some portion of the most ecologically important part of the forest if they can justify the need. The Act doesn’t define how that justification should work. That’s a huge loophole in the law. Under pressure from the Annapolis Environmental Commission, DNEP last year formulated its own criteria for justification, but that criteria is weak.
Traditionally, developers have been allowed in Annapolis, and Anne Arundel County, to cut down about half the forest on their properties.
So now the test will be how much wiggle room the city gives Hyatt and his partners to justify clearing the very forests the city has declared protected.
But this off-stage decision by DNEP should get the credit it deserves. The department consulted with the Office of Planning and Zoning which had strongly objected to Hyatt’s interpretation of the state law, and the FSD plan he submitted. The Annapolis Environmental Commission also had vigorously opposed the developer’s FSD.
Thank you DNEP. Now we ask you to keep strong through the next stage of the Crystal Spring process.