In the battle between chainsaws and trees and their protectors, the chainsaws win, hands down. No matter that Montgomery County has in place a Forest Conservation Statute. Unscrupulous and/or ignorant landowners, developers, and tree companies continue to illegally destroy a hundred years of growth of tree cover in minutes. Even the most vigilant neighbors and responsive county enforcement staff are no match for actions that literally can take place in the time it takes to call county enforcement officials.
Once the deed is done, the damage is irreparable. No amount of fines or remedial plantings can replace the incredible stands of mature trees that are the natural treasures of our Potomac subregion. This is confirmed yet again by recent actions of a developer in the Glen Hills neighborhood and the extraordinary measures the Park Service has had to take to protect areas along the C&O Canal near the Dan Snyder property.
WMCCA members have been actively involved in efforts to strengthen the statutory and regulatory bases for tree protection. Perhaps the new criminal provisions will give enforcement greater bite. But much more needs to be done. For starters:
1. Rapid action: The best enforcement tool is you, the resident — your eyes and ears. The county will never have enough staff to police what is happening in our neighborhoods. Learn and look for the telltale signs of possible tree cutting and land disturbance. Critical numbers to call for enforcement need to be next to your phone — better yet, on speed dial. Call at the very first signs — before the sap is spilled.
2. Bright sunlight on the process: The entire submission, approval, and enforcement processes must be open to the public and the information accessible on the Internet. No more one-on-one deals with developers on plans, plan changes, or enforcement measures. The list of offenders, their actions, and the enforcement action taken should be given to the press and posted on the County Web site.
3. Clear statement of requirements: Although there are some technical arborist issues, that is not an excuse for the fog that surrounds enforcement. This is not rocket science. Existing and proposed Natural resource Inventories and Forest Conservation Plans, as well as any changes, should be readily accessible on the Internet — not buried in desk drawers at Park and Planning. The fencing, signage, and mowing and other disturbance requirements should be clear to all — and enforced. Existing conservation areas are subject to death by a thousand minor blows.
4. Much more robust enforcement: The remedy for the unscrupulous and ignorant is real enforcement with real consequences, including consequences beyond the traditional. No one should be granted a license to conduct a land development or tree business in the county if he or she does not follow the rules.
Planning and Zoning, by George Barnes
Country Inn Zone: WMCCA has submitted a letter to Park and Planning requesting that they deny the application by the Koh family for a Country Inn Zone at their property on River Road. Our opposition is based on our belief that the application does not comply with the intent of the ordinance which established the zone, and that the amount of commercial space requested is far more than the square footage appropriate for ancillary uses, which is what the ordinance permits. We also are unhappy with the phased nature of the plan, as we are presented with a plan that may never be completed. Once the Country Inn Zone is granted and a development plan is approved, there is no other chance for citizen input on the conceptual elements of the plan. The project will need site plan approval, but the basic elements are set during the zoning phase.
I met with the Koh family after our letter was filed with Park and Planning, and they are eager to have our support for their project. They will be bringing additional information to the Planning Board, particularly regarding the type of restaurant they would like to build on the site, and they may be willing to rework their phasing plan. The Planning Board decision is advisory to the Hearing Examiner, who will hold a hearing on Dec. 12 and report his findings to the County Council, which must grant the change to Country Inn Zone, also after a public hearing.
Wellness Center: We have been approached by the attorney representing the new owner of the former Furman property next to the Giant who is interested in meeting with us to discuss his ideas for a wellness center on the property. We may have more information at the December meeting.
Red Barn Lane: A preliminary plan has been filed for the Johnson property at the corner of Glen Mill Road and Red Barn Lane to subdivide the existing five-acre property into two lots, with the existing house and improvements on a three-acre lot and a new two-acre lot with a house on septic and the existing public water in Red Barn Lane.
Environmental Report, by Ginny Barnes
Forest and tree protection are at the forefront currently, both in development plans and Task Force efforts on which WMCCA is represented. A sampling:
* Justement Woods on Glen Road: The applicant has come back with a new development plan for two houses on this heavily wooded lot that saves fewer trees. It is scheduled for the Development Review Committee on Dec. 11 in preparation for the full Planning Commission in a public hearing as yet unscheduled.
* C&O Canal Stewardship Task Force: The Task Force created by Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in June 2005 in the wake of the Swains Lock forest cutting incident has resumed meetings after a brief recess during the elections. In July, the Task Force submitted proposed substantive amendments to the county’s Forest Conservation Law, in anticipation of their being introduced as legislation by Councilmember Howie Denis (R-1) after the election. The amendments have sparked interest from new Councilmember Marc Elrich (At-large), and the Task Force hopes to review in early January a draft to be prepared by County Council’s legal staff.
* MNCPPC’s Forest Conservation Task Force: Convened in June 2006 to improve implementation of the existing Forest Conservation Law, the group, with an anticipated life span of six to eight months, is now developing a set of recommendations. As a member, we've learned that with only two inspectors it is impossible to adequately investigate complaints. We’ve learned that inspectors called out on possible violations are not empowered to issue a stop work order. Therefore, unless some other trigger is present — sediment and erosion control or preliminary plan violation — the inspector can only negotiate for mitigation under the Forest Conservation Law. Guess what one of our recommendations will be?