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Hearing speakers rap Washington Co. forest conservation rules

August 25, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Jim Laird, president of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, spoke to the Washington County Comissioners Tuesday during a public hearing on proposed changes to the county forest conservation ordinance.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Citizens on Tuesday urged the Washington County Commissioners not to bow to pressure from developers as they consider implementing state-mandated changes that would strengthen forest conservation requirements.

"We know there has always been a powerful self-interest group seeking to repeal, ignore or somehow avoid full compliance with any state law that would be an inconvenience to developers, especially laws protecting the environment," Jim Laird, president of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County, said at a public hearing on proposed changes to the county forest conservation ordinance.

The state has mandated that the county raise its "payment in lieu of planting" fee from 10 cents per square foot to 30 to 36 cents per square foot. That fee is paid if a developer cannot meet forest preservation or planting requirements on the project site and is used to support forestation efforts elsewhere.

If the county does not comply with the state requirement, the state could take over the county's forest conservation program, county planning director Michael C. Thompson said.

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The commissioners decided Tuesday not to implement the changes right away, and instead to appoint a committee to do a comprehensive review of the county's forest conservation ordinance. The committee should submit its recommended changes in no more than six months, the commissioners said.

That decision came after citizens, a conservation official and a representative of the development community all spoke about ways the current forest conservation ordinance fails in its goals.

"I see too many instances where everybody meets the (terms) of the ordinance, but we don't have a forest, we have a patch of dead trees, and the county's hands are tied to do anything about that," said Elmer Weibley, Washington County Soil Conservation District manager.

Attorney Jason Divelbiss, who represents many local developers, said on-site planting often is not feasible on commercial projects and results in those patches of dead forest in the middle of asphalt.

Hagerstown resident Sally Hatch said she opposes any payments in lieu of planting by developers and said replacement trees should be more mature than the ones normally used.

Laird said he thought the county too often agreed to payment-in-lieu agreements. By allowing tree planting to take place off-site rather than integrating it into developments, Laird said he feared developed areas would become "one big asphalt jungle."

"If you don't have trees in a lot of places, there's no aesthetic value," he said. "People don't take care of the place; nobody likes the place."

In addition, Laird said a well-established forest could absorb 15 times as much rain water as a manicured lawn, reducing storm runoff, and can absorb hundreds of times more carbon dioxide than a lawn of the same area.

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