Bill 35-12 has been introduced in response to widespread and growing community concern over the past decade about ongoing loss of tree canopy in urbanized sections of the county. Tree loss in these areas has resulted from infill development, storm damage and disease. Although the countywide tree canopy is at 50% -- which includes forests and trees on parkland, private residential property and trees along streets – there are sections of the county where tree canopy is alarmingly low. Near some of our streams and creeks that eventually drain to the Chesapeake Bay, tree canopy is as low as 8% or 13%. To sustain a healthy countywide canopy percentage, existing trees must be protected and new trees must be planted aggressively to make up for ongoing loss of tree canopy.
Bill 41-12 deals with street trees along our county public rights of way. Existing Roadside Tree Law dates back to 1914. Almost 100 years old, the law has undergone few changes. Oddly, the law was not developed by local jurisdictions, but rather by the State. As a result, the Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis has jurisdiction over all trees along public roads regardless of the County in which the rights of way are located.
The law was first conceived for purposes of highway beautification at a time when the automobile was growing in popularity and ugly billboards were springing up all along the roadways. Over the years, utilities sought to increase their presence in the rights of way, and a balance between utilities and shade trees was sought. For many years, the law worked fairly well. Trees were plentiful. Tree damage by untrained persons had little impact on the overall forest. The goal was worker safety, with requirements that only trained arborists work on the roadside trees.
The environmental and sustainability aspect of street tree canopy of which we are increasingly aware today, was not addressed in the past. Even in recent years, trees were evaluated largely in terms of aesthetic or timber value.
Today pressures of population growth, urban crowding and innovative approaches to urban planning necessitate a closer look at the benefits that street trees provide. The time has passed when it can be safely said that we “have plenty of trees.” Tree canopy, particularly in built out urban areas is disappearing at an alarming rate. Before removing trees, thoughtful evaluation is needed.
For many years, liberal tree removal has been allowed in Montgomery County with no legal requirements for replanting. Replanting has always been at the discretion of the State ranger. In addition, due to understaffing, there are few rangers available to enforce the existing law. Many county residents are unaware there is a State Roadside Tree law. Many break the law with impunity.
One by one the street trees are being removed and replaced with diminutive saplings that provide no shade. At a time when our planning goal is to make communities walkable, our urban and infill neighborhoods are being stripped of trees.
Bill 35-12 address urban canopy loss and discourages unnecessary removal of trees when 5,000 square feet of space will be developed in the county on private property. Bill 41-12 protects street trees in the county right of way. Both are needed to mitigate the ongoing loss of individual trees that are not covered by the existing Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law.