It has been six years since the 2004 massive tree cutting on private property overlooking the C&O Canal at Swains Lock drew attention to the inadequacy of laws to preserve our vital forests. That incident gave rise to the C&O Canal Task Force, initiated by Congressman Chris Van Hollen. The Task Force included representatives from the National Park Service, Federal, State and County staff as well as members of the public, environmental and civic organizations. The result was a finding that the current County Forest Conservation Law (FCL) lacks deterrents to cutting as well as incentives to value and protect existing forest canopy cover. Subsequently the County passed limited legislation to increase fines for destruction of forest, but two separate legislative efforts to reform our overly complicated and inadequate FCL by both Maryland National Capitol Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) and Councilmemember Marc Elrich have died in Committee at the County Council. Meanwhile, it has become obvious that, while forest cover is inadequate under our current law, tree protection, particularly in the urban down county, is nonexistent.
Older neighborhoods in Bethesda, Kensington and Silver Spring were initially carved from forest, leaving stands of old trees and a sense of stability. Redevelopment has hit these communities hard. Houses are purchased, torn down and replaced with large mansions filling small lots. With no requirement to save trees, the lots are often completely denuded of any tree cover. This practice affects not only adjoining neighbors, but the entire community, not just visually, but through changes in local climate, energy consumption and property values for all residents. We know a lot more about what trees do for us than we did just six years ago. We know that, especially in urban areas, trees filter air pollution, provide shade that lowers temperatures and improve water quality. Trees cool air through evapotranspiration. A mature tree with a 30-foot crown transpires about 40 gallons of water a day. Hard surfaces like walls, roofs, streets and driveways may be 9 to 36 degrees F cooler than peak surface temperatures of unshaded surfaces. Mature trees can store 1,000 times more CO2 annually than young trees. Additionally, homes with large trees sell for higher prices.
In companion areas of environmental policy, Montgomery County is more progressive, though, as usual, improvements are driven by forces from above – the Federal Clean Water Act, requirements for Environmental Site Design (ESD), new State stormwater regulations, and renewed Chesapeake Bay initiatives. Responding to the threats of climate change, Montgomery County convened a Sustainability Working Group and in January 2009 released a Montgomery County, Md. Climate Protection Plan which requires our county to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent by the year 2050, with specific targets along the way. The Plan recognizes the role trees and forests play in climate stability and urges development of accurate forest and tree canopy inventories, setting canopy goals, revising and updating the Roadside Tree Law (RTL), and extending tax credits for renewable energy measures to include tree planting. Nearly two years later, we've made very little, if any, progress fulfilling these particular recommendations.
Meanwhile, we continue to lose trees and forest. In January 2009, the Maryland state-mandated No Net Loss Task Force issued a Final Report and Recommendations, illustrating forest cover by tributary basins and counties. Montgomery County has only 29% forest cover compared to 41% for Anne Arundel and 42% for Prince George's County. Even Baltimore County beats us with 34%. It also recommends, in addition to mapping and tracking forest acreage, the need to chart urban tree cover and to set forest and canopy goals. American Forests recommends canopy goals of 25% for urban areas, 50% for Suburban areas and 40% overall. Comparative maps of Montgomery County forest cover show that in 1951 most of our forest cover was in the urban down county while in 2008 we've made some forest gains in the Agricultural Reserve but lost forest elsewhere. Were it not for Stream Valley Parks, we'd have little contiguous forest remaining in any of our urban areas.
So, what are we doing to stop the loss? Well, last year the County Executive budget cuts suspended the roadside tree planting program, so we can't replace dead or cut trees in the public right of way. After an initial interest in creating a Countywide tree ordinance and amending the current FCL, the Council punted to a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) request to let them come up with an approach that would weave forest and tree protection into a single bill. That was two years ago. As yet, no draft language has emerged, and no Councilmember has taken initiative to move DEP forward. We do know their mystery legislation is based solely on a “pay to play” scenario – if a property owner is willing and able to pay enough money, they can cut down mature trees and forest. This should not be the only deterrent. We can't afford to ignore the simple fact that trees and forest are crucial to maintaining overall public health. Requiring a countywide level of canopy cover must be the basis of any new legislation.
Street Lights on South Glen Road?
Traveling along rustic roads takes us away from the hustle and bustle of our urban environment and transports us to a world of trees and pastoral tranquility. Montgomery County is blessed with a network of country roads that are designated as rustic and exceptional rustic roads by the Rustic Roads Function Master Plan created in 1996. WMCCA fought hard for the Rustic Roads Program. Potomac’s roads in the Glen were the initial incentives for the program, and remain stellar examples of rustic roads.
A request from residents that street lights be installed on South Glen Road challenges the concept of “rustic” and its image of simple country living. There is no stated policy on how we should treat street lights on rustic roads, nor has our County Executive directed the establishment of such a policy for the Rustic Roads Program. County Council representatives have taken the stand that “rules are rules” in an absence of a policy, and that Montgomery County should proceed with the installation of the street lights. WMCCA believes that any action on this request must await the establishment of appropriate policy. We call for the Council to support the intent of the Rustic Roads Master Plan and not allow degradation of the rustic roads due to loopholes of omissions.
WMCCA Responding to Budget Crisis
Budget cuts to County services and facilities will force changes in our meeting place and time. We are no longer able to procure the Potomac Library on a consistent monthly basis, so, starting in January 2011, we will move our General Meetings to the Potomac Community Center on Falls Road. Since County facilities are cutting back on hours they are open, we will start our meetings (beginning in January) at 7:15 p.m., since we must vacate the Community Center by 8:55 p.m. WMCCA General Meetings are the second Wednesdays of the month – January 12, February 9, March 9, April 13 and May 11. Please put these dates on your calendars.
West Montgomery County Citizens Association Newsletter
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