Leggett Signs Tree Bills, Builders Unhappy With Requirements

County Executive Isiah Leggett signs two tree protection bills on Tuesday

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) on Tuesday signed a pair of tree protection bills into law — one that will add another layer of protection for roadside trees and one that targets tree loss during downcounty “mansionization” projects.

Leggett signed the bill while surrounded by county environmentalists and staff. But members of the home building industry, with which the County Council had hoped to reach a compromise on the tree canopy protection bill, declined an invitation to attend.

Robert Kaufman, director of government affairs for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry, said despite significant changes to the bill, builders still disagreed with the requirement that they must plant approximately three new canopy trees for each tree lost during a home construction or rebuilding project.

If the builder can not or does not plant the amount of trees required, the builder must pay $250 per each tree owed into a fund the county will use to plant trees elsewhere in urban areas. Kaufman said those costs would likely be passed on to home buyers.

“Classically, it’s just another example of Montgomery County charging home buyers for buying a home in Montgomery County,” Kaufman said.

Leggett and supporters of the bill sounded a different tone.

“Comparatively, Montgomery County has a lot of trees,” Leggett said. “That’s not enough. We can do better. I think we are doing better.”

The basic model of the bill, which requires a certain amount of new trees based on square footage of tree canopy damaged or lost, came from a group of builders who identified themselves as Rebuilding Montgomery.

The county’s Department of Environmental Protection, which pushed for the bill with Leggett’s backing, agreed on the model because it would allow builders to plant new trees on the properties in question, instead of automatically paying into a fund that would result in trees elsewhere.

Caren Madsen from Conservation Montgomery and other environmentalists lobbied for the bill for the better part of five years.

Madsen said environmentalists didn’t get all they wanted either, but the final result was a good compromise.

The county and builders disagreed on the amount of new trees necessary to achieve a healthy tree canopy in older Bethesda neighborhoods. Stan Edwards, with the Department of Environmental Protection, and others argued to the Council that the shade trees required have only a 33 percent survival rate, therefore justifying three new trees for every one lost during construction.

Kaufman said the requirement that each new tree have at least 400 square feet to grow will make it difficult to fit three new trees per every one lost at a new home site, effectively making the bill a tax. Builders are also concerned about the county’s stormwater management laws, which they say often cause the most damage to existing tree canopy.

“We’re not against trees,” Kaufman said. “But it’s a catch-22. We are forced to clear in-fill sites to meet county stormwater management requirements and now we’re asked to pay a tree fee to pay for it.”

The roadside tree bill will give the county greater say in the fate of trees in county right-of-ways. The bill was sponsored by Councilmembers Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase) and Marc Elrich (D-At large). Councilmembers Hans Riemer (D-At large) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) also spoke at the bill signing.

The bills will go into effect on March 1, 2014.

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