Look around. Our remaining forests are disappearing — not just here in Montgomery County but all over the world. In the early 1960s Montgomery County planners created a vision for future land use that wisely recognized the importance of preserving agricultural lands in the upper part of the county and protecting the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers that provide our drinking water. Two residential eastern and western “Green Wedges” were designated and given low-density zoning and limited sewer capacity with an emphasis on protecting streams and the forests that buffer them. Nothing can replace forests and trees for holding soil and soaking up stormwater. Their canopies cool streams, shield the ground, and disperse rainwater. Now we know forests also sequester carbon, making them the foundation of the Earth's defense against climate change.
When a property owner cut 55,000 square feet of forest on a steep slope overlooking the C&O Canal in 2004, it created outrage and then a growing awareness of the inadequacies in our current Forest Conservation Law. In response to the public outcry, U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) set up a Task Force that recommended to a receptive County Council that there was a need to add criminal penalties to the FCL as well as much higher fines. Legislation was passed in December 2005 that made it possible to send someone to jail for illegally cutting forest. But that was the easy part — it didn't require opening the codified version of the FCL.
Since then, recognition that the law is not fulfilling its stated intent to preserve forest has given rise to two separate efforts to amend the law. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has just completed a revision that smoothes the implementation process but does little to incorporate major changes. In the meantime, Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large) agreed to complete the intent of former District 1 Councilmember Howie Denis (R) and turn recommendations of the C&O Canal Task Force into legislation that makes more sweeping changes to the current law. Both M-NCPPC amendments and those drafted by Mr. Elrich will be introduced simultaneously to the County Council in December 2007 or January 2008, with public hearings scheduled after introduction.
THE FOREST Conservation Law has not seen any comprehensive revisions since the mid-1990s, and it is unlikely that we'll do it again in the near future, so while we have this opportunity, let's do it right. As strong environmental advocates, WMCCA favors amendments that will provide the most protection for our existing forest cover as well as incentives to create more forest. New forest areas take years to grow and cannot provide the values existing forest gives us now. Newly planted forests face severe impediments to success from deer browse and invasive plant species. Though Potomac certainly presents an abundance of lawns, grass provides little of the environmental value of trees. In fact, lawns and their care contribute increasing amounts of toxic pollution to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It isn't expansive lawns that make us a “Green Wedge,” but trees — trees save our soils, cool our streams, and shade our homes. Forests could save the Bay. Will we save our forests?
Conference on Clean Water and Streams for Montgomery: On Oct. 27, the Montgomery County Stormwater Partners held a highly successful all-day conference at the Montgomery County Council Building. County Executive Ike Leggett opened the conference of more than 100 participants that included a number of WMCCA members and Potomac residents. Delegate Jane Lawton, a sponsor of the state stormwater bill that passed in the recent session and requires green buildings, outlined the new legislation. Tom Schueler of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network gave a grim overview of the uncoordinated multi-state efforts to decrease stormwater and toxins reaching the Bay. WMCCA President Ginny Barnes moderated a panel on arts and the media called "Framing a Watershed” that included Board member and National Public Radio reporter Carol Van Dam Falk, Potomac Almanac reporter Aaron Stern, David Farenholdt of the Washington Post, and local nature writer Lisa Couturier. The Stormwater Partners Network unveiled a Citizens Watershed Strategy to renew the call for greater public participation in watershed protection and stormwater management.
WMCCA Meets with Elected Officials on ICC
WMCCA has historically opposed the InterCounty Connector (ICC) based on its environmental impacts and the strong probability that completion will lead to a second Potomac River bridge that would be accessed through the Potomac Subregion or the Agricultural Reserve. Last month, as the ICC was being argued in federal court, four WMCCA Board members met with Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1). The Council is currently split 5-4 in support of the road, with Mr. Berliner among the supporters. The following week several Board members met State Delegate Brian Feldman (D-15) to discuss the costly road. Our state delegation is currently split 3-1 in favor of the road, with Mr. Feldman among the supporters.
In both meetings, WMCCA was joined by a team of budget, public health, environmental and transportation experts, including representatives of Environmental Defense, a party to the suit being decided. We reminded our public officials that much has changed since the bridge was planned. The ICC’s high costs are now much higher and would tie up state and federal highway funds to the exclusion of other needs; the potential for environmental degradation has intensified with the ICC’s obsolete and inadequate stormwater management design; and traffic pollutants are known to damage the lungs of children and the elderly in schools and homes close to the ICC. Councilmember Berliner indicated he understands the troubling information about climate change, traffic and budget/financial issues. He declined to change his position of support for the ICC, but said he might reconsider based on the ruling from Judge Williams, expected sometime in mid-November. Delegate Feldman said he was increasingly aware of environmental, budget, and climate issues, but also awaited the judge’s ruling.
— Diana Conway