County Executive Isiah Leggett today said his controversial tree canopy bill is a fair compromise between conservationists and builders who do tear-down home projects in Bethesda’s older neighborhoods.
Leggett’s Tree Canopy Conservation bill, before the County Council now, would require builders or land owners in small lots to pay a fee for lost canopy during large home addition or home rebuilding projects. The county’s Department of Environmental Protection has used overhead imagery of Bethesda neighborhoods where “mansionization” is common to show the loss of tree canopy over the last decade.
The fees would go into a county-operated tree replacement fund.
“This bill strikes what I consider to be a balance between those who want more stringent regulations to protect trees and those who feel that additional protection is a burden,” Leggett said. “It’s a good balance in my opinion.”
The building industry, at least initially, did not agree. On Friday, Leggett joined Caren Madsen and Arlene Bruhn from Conservation Montgomery to talk up the bill and plant a tree near the Bethesda Library to celebrate Arbor Day.
“Not only are we having what we call mansionization, in addition to all the sediment challenges we have, we lose the trees,” Leggett said. “You simply can not easily replace those trees that are lost. We must act now to protect and restore the valuable community resources that we believe are in this bill.”
Leggett said the bill applies to those who want to do projects that require a sediment control permit, that will mean the cutting of 5,000 square feet or more of tree canopy, or that mean 100 cubic yards or more of earth movement.
In a County Council Committee hearing on the issue in April, the idea of a credit for property owners who do big rebuild projects was raised. The credit would lower the cost of removing tree canopy for property owners who protect 25 percent of the tree canopy on-site or made “unusual” efforts to save trees.
County Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) said he hopes his Transportation & Environment Committee can come closer to a compromise between conservationists, the county and builders when it next takes up the issue in June.
Stan Edwards, from the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said today at the ceremony that he feels the sides are getting closer. Edwards and DEP staff are sending examples of development proposals to other jurisdictions around the country to see how those places would treat those plans.
The staff also has to look at how the methodology for a credit program for protecting trees or planting trees on-property would work.
“I think we’ll be able to find some common ground that everyone will be happy with,” Edwards said.
Laura Miller, a Montgomery County arborist, said the credit program wasn’t in the original bill because it costs a significant amount of money to operate and the Department was hoping to present a streamlined approach.
Madsen said she’s not optimistic that builders will accept the idea.
“This tree canopy legislation does not look at stopping development altogether and it’s not at aimed at a typical homeowner who wants to take down one or two trees on the lot,” Madsen said. “The legislation is there to increase tree canopy and it’s very practical. It just says if you want to take down tree canopy, you can do that, but we want you to pay into a fund to help replace some of that lost canopy.
“We’d like to find some middle ground,” Madsen said, “but what we find is very often, no matter what is put on the table in terms of tree legislation, builders will oppose it.”