County preserves trees to guard bay

By Adele Evans
Special to Baltimore Sun

May 13, 2007

Anne Arundel County forester Douglas Musser found himself practicing what he preached when it came to making up for lost forest on his own land.

Musser knew he couldn't possibly replant the forest he had cleared to build his home ("the kids have to play somewhere"), so he sought out a "forest bank" and bought shares of replacement trees there.

Now, Musser's children have open space to play in, without any net loss of trees for the county.

Of all Maryland counties, Anne Arundel is where the environmental buck probably makes the most stops. "We're the last stand before the Chesapeake Bay," said Pam Jordan, county forests spokeswoman. "We have more shoreline in the bay critical area than any other county in Maryland. Somebody could be building all the way up in central Pennsylvania, and the water pollution and runoff often wind up here."

Because of complex groundwater flow patterns, someone polluting or cutting too many trees at one time in Delaware could wind up tainting waters near Annapolis. That puts even more pressure on the county to maintain and enhance its forests and control water quality.

According to the Grantsville-based Maryland Forests Association, forests covered 95 percent of Maryland in Colonial times.

Today, only 42 percent of Maryland remains forested - and trees are often coming down faster than they're being planted. The percentage varies by county, and it seems most counties are beginning a race to grow more trees.

Marian Honeczy, state forests spokesman, agrees that more forest should be preserved but added that right now there is no set ideal percentage, such as half forest, half development. That answer should come from the state this year when state and local forestry officials meet and try to settle upon a percentage.

In the meantime, recent statistics from the state Department of Natural Resources say Maryland is still losing an estimated 10,000 acres of forest per year to development.

Well aware of the statistics, and what they can mean to the bay, Anne Arundel County is turning things around with stringent replanting requirements, as well as its "greenways" preservation plan, which creates contiguous forests within the county.

Although residential development has been booming for years, particularly in the north, Jordan says Anne Arundel maintains one of the highest percentages of forest coverage in the state - with about half of its lands covered in trees. Forestry officials, including Musser, say the 50 percent mark is fair and realistic.

"There's actually more forest [in Anne Arundel] today than 50 years ago," Jordan said. "We had so much [unforested] agricultural land in the northern county then; now there's actually more forest there."

One major problem in forest conservation is that too many existing forests have been cut up and sold off in small, privately owned lots.

This parceling leads to haphazard forest maintenance because many residents don't care properly for their individual forests. That leads to sicker trees, more weeds, older trees that should be cut but aren't, invasive plants that choke out the native trees and more destructive insects (because more sunlight can get into smaller patches of forest and help the pests thrive).

This all results in patchwork forests that aren't as efficient in water filtration, oxygen production or wildlife support.

To create more contiguous forest, Anne Arundel County has spearheaded a "greenways" master plan, where contiguous blocks of land are set aside for forest growth.

Greenways are designated open space, ideally positioned along environmentally critical parts of the county, such as around streambeds, flood plains and other areas where trees are sorely needed to dilute and draw out pollutants before they reach the bay.

Greenways, amounting to 71,700 acres, now cover 27 percent of the county's total acreage and make up about half of all county forest lands.

Levels of protection

Most other regulations regarding replanting to make up for cleared forest are contained in two basic sets of requirements: the county's critical area regulations and the 1991 state Forest Conservation Act.

Designated "critical areas" lie within 1,000 feet of tidal wetlands and waterways. If forest is cleared in a critical area, there are strict replanting rules, Musser said.

"The roots stabilize the asphalt runoff. If it's just asphalt to bay water, you get no filtration of pollutants," Jordan said.

Critical areas regulations, in existence for almost 20 years, have resulted in permanent preservation of more than 972 acres of forested or reforested land.

Within critical areas, developers, builders and landowners are required to reforest, based upon the percentage of the on-site wooded area that is to be removed.

State action

Anne Arundel County also follows the sweeping Maryland Forest Conservation Act of 1991. The act covers forest removal outside the bay critical area, and it holds developers and landowners responsible for preserving forests and replanting them to make up for any clearing during construction.

Individual counties may build on the basic act specifications, but they cannot be more lenient as far as clearing and required replanting goes.

The act has resulted in permanent preservation of more than 3,000 county acres since its inception 16 years ago, Musser said.

The act kicks in if an acre or more of land is disturbed (graded or developed, or the dirt is disturbed in any way).

The amount of preservation area is determined partly by the land's zoning. Commercial and industrially zoned lands have lower forest replanting requirements than agriculturally zoned properties.

Reforestation means builders or owners have to replant forest they have cut and cleared - at usually a 1-1 or 2-1 tree ratio, depending on the zoning of the land. The more agricultural the land, the more must be planted. Aforestation means that the builder must plant trees, even if none existed in the first place.

What's more, before disturbing land larger than 40,000 square feet, the builder must contact a professional forester or a state forester and draw up a "forest conservation plan." That report includes what's in the existing forest before development, and what will be planted and where - to make up for the forest disturbance.

Innovative solutions

Anne Arundel County has not simply dropped the regulations in builders' laps without offering help. Builders have three ways to replace lost forest: on-site replanting at another location they own or purchase; a fee-in-lieu option; or buying tree credits in established forest banks. The precise number of trees that define "forest" varies from about 400 trees to 700 per acre, depending upon their size.

If a builder or land owner chooses the fee-in-lieu method of making up for lost forest, he or she pays the county to find and plant replacement forest. In locating that land, the county often contacts local land owners to see whether they're interested in having forest planted, in easements, on their property - which must contain 5 or more acres.

If the owner agrees, the county pays for everything: the easement processing costs, the new trees and the planting costs. In some programs, the owner is even paid for the easement itself at 60 percent of fair-market value, said Barbara Polito, agricultural program administrator at the office of planning and zoning.

In return, the landowner agrees that the designated forest will remain intact and healthy for at least 15 years.

The property owners' taxes immediately drop to an agricultural rate of $125 per acre - for the entire property, Honeczy says. The only catch is that if the owner breaks the agreement, he has to pay the back taxes at the normal rate.

"The county has been quite successful with the fee-in-lieu program," she said. "They're looking for larger properties. That way, the homeowner can plant the final 50 feet of the property in forest and it doesn't affect the homeowner."

Homeowners could sometimes sell the land to developers for more money - but often the lands that the county targets can't be built upon anyway and aren't much good for agriculture - so it's a good way to make money on basically undevelopable land, Honeczy said.

Banks

More than 200 acres of forest are growing within established forest banks in Anne Arundel County. Because it's often impossible for builders to replace lost forest on their property, they may replace it elsewhere in the county - often in areas more beneficial to the waterways than the disturbed site.

Banks, which are more common throughout the metro region, are private. With forest banks, the owner of the land where the bank is located can charge the developer a fee, based on square footage of forest needed, Musser said.

"We approve a certain amount of credits for a banker to offer," he said. "The amount they charge is based on how many trees they have and our 'fee-in-lieu' charge."

The county charges $1.20 a square foot to find and plant forest in critical areas within 1,000 feet of tidal waters. It charges 50 cents per square foot for noncritical areas lying farther from the water.

"It's not called a critical area for nothing," Musser said.

So if a bank charges $1.10 a square foot of forest, it could earn $43,560 per acre of forest credit sold to builders.

Banks must record easements and have the trees planted up front. Only then can they sell the tree credits to builders. The county inspects the banks' lists of creditors and follows up so that bankers can't sell their trees twice or three times.

"We know how much he's able to sell," Musser said. "We track the developer users. They give us a letter for each new client, their square footages."

Lands within the banks are put in a permanent easement, meaning they can never be developed.

In 19 years of operation, there have been 11 banks, with more than 200 acres of forest growth. Right now, there are two banks open in critical areas and two outside those areas.

Anne Arundel County is working with the state forest service to launch a new form of banking. These banks would preserve large tracts of forest within the county's greenways.

County officials anticipate that the owners of forested land inside greenways greater than 10 acres who place a perpetual conservation easement over the land may establish a tree bank. This would provide incentives to owners to preserve more forested land, Musser said.

"We love banks in critical areas because they are the last line of defense for the bay and the tributaries," said Polito. "The roots stabilize the areas."

Within the county, there are two state programs and one county program to protect the land. So far, 12,084 acres have been preserved and permanently protected from development in agricultural and woodland areas, she said.

The county can offer landowners $9,000 an acre under county law - 60 percent of the fair-market value.

The owners still own the land, but they can't use it for development and must have a forest management plan. If they sell the land, the new owner may not build, either.

That's not to say the land can't be touched - it just can't be built on. The landowners can still make more money off the land if they plant vineyards or use it for hunting or for timber harvesting.

Other incentives

Tax incentives do serve to encourage people to hold onto their forests, Honeczy says.

At the state level, incentives are available for those who own more than 5 acres of forested land and enter into a forest management program to improve and manage their forest. The length of these programs is usually 15 years, and no major construction may occur during that time.

"There's no county tax on the land," Polito said. "The first $250,000 of assessed value of structures, houses, whatever ... falls under the tax credit, and they don't have to pay tax on it. That's in addition to being paid for putting the land into easements."

"There will be many acres of forest for future generations," Musser said. "But the health of our existing forests is another question."

Invasive plants, deer and insects are major problems - and they seem to increase each year. In parts of the county, invasive species are destroying native trees (especially on private parcels). Deer are eating the seedlings and lower growth; insects such as the Asian emerald ash borer are eating up native trees.

The county is working to educate forest owners and encourage them to work with the forest conservancy board in the county.

"We take some of that fee-in-lieu money to give to the board to advise owners how to manage their forests," Musser said.

"People are concerned when they hear a chainsaw running near the water; but some of those plants are invasive, like the common reed. They overtake the native grasses and bushes, so it's fine that they are cut down."

(Revised May 2007)