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Protecting Trees an Uphill Battle

Laws designed to thwart illegal tree removal suffer from a lack of enforcement

One morning a stand of large, mature trees can be standing on the same ground that they grew out of hundreds of years ago. The next they can be gone, neatly sawed off at their bases and removed in minutes, permanently altering the landscape.

Making matters worse, according to some Potomac residents, is that such cutting of trees is often done illegally.

“In the battle between chainsaws and trees and their protectors, the chainsaws win, hands down,” said Susanne Lee, President of the West Montgomery Citizens Association in a recent newsletter to the group's members. “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."

The rules and regulations that govern the removal of trees and forests on properties in Montgomery County are frequently undermined by a willful skirting of the rules by developers and residents alike, said Lee.

Montgomery County implemented the Forest Conservation Law in 1992, a law designed to protect against unchecked clear cutting, said Mark Pfefferle, an Environmental Planner with the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (MNCPPC). Pfefferle spoke to residents at the monthly WMCCA meeting on Wednesday, December 13.

THE PENALTIES for violation were stiffened in the wake of a 2004 incident when Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, obtained permission to cut down 130 trees in an easement between his home and the C&O Canal, causing a public outcry, said Pfefferle.

Inspectors do not have the ability to issue stop-work orders on site and cannot issue fines in excess of $1,000. Pfefferle said that any fines higher than $1,000 must be levied by the Planning Board.

Further hindering enforcement of the laws is that the county has only three inspectors to monitor all such projects.

"[The inspectors] are grossly overworked and we all know that," said Pfefferle.

Under the Forest Conservation Law, anyone who owns a lot that is 40,000 square feet in size (about an acre) or greater and wishes to remove 5,000 square feet or more of tree canopy from the property must apply to MNCPPC for the right to do so by either submitting a Forest Conservation Plan or by filing for an exemption from having to do so, said Pfefferle.

A Forest Conservation Plan details the work that will be done on the property and establishes guidelines for the preservation of forest on the property, though there are almost twenty categories of qualification for an exemption, said Pfefferle.

FURTHER COMPLICATING matters are Conservation Easements, areas on properties that cannot be disturbed at all. Property owners are often unaware that such a restriction exists on their property, said Pfefferle, because at settlement they are given a copy of the site plan survey which Pfefferle said often do not show such restrictions. A copy of the recorded plat would show them, but Pfefferle said that buyers often are not provided with them.

"You think you have all the documents, but in reality you don't," said Pfefferle. "You think you can go and cut down whatever you want … that is a problem."

Violators are subjected to fines and then must follow a course of corrective action designed by the county; failure to follow through on the corrective actions can result in more fines, said Pfefferle.

Violators are not limited to residents and developers, said Ginny Barnes, environmental chair of the WMCCA, noting that county institutions such as schools have infringed on the rules. Pfefferle noted that schools get special exceptions to the rules because of safety and security considerations.

"We're setting a very poor example by not requiring [schools] to follow the rules," said Barnes.

The problems are in the enforcement of the law, said Pfefferle. "Enforcement is a problem everywhere," he said. "As long as you're intent on doing something, you're going to do it no matter what the consequences are."

A task force of environmental groups, developers and citizens is currently looking at ways to improve the law, said Pfefferle, particularly its implementation. The report of the task force is due out in early 2007.