I have lived in our county my entire life. I recall the days when there was no east-west highway, “Arnold Station” was the original small train station, and there were more trees along Route 2.
Our county has changed, but the trajectory has now shifted.
In September of this year, the county executive introduced Bill 68-19 to the council. This bill quickly became known as the “forest conservation bill.” It was the largest bill that this council has considered.
If we review the legislative history of the council, we would have to go back to 2011 and the introduction of the stormwater management bill to find a bill similar in size and scope. When the stormwater management bill was first introduced, it was retracted and put to a work group consisting of stakeholders, which included economists, environmentalists, land developers, community organizations, business leaders and council representatives. From initial introduction of that bill, it took nearly two years for it to cross the finish line with favorable passage.
Land use is complicated and complex. It is one of the reasons the General Development Plan takes a year or more to craft. The administration met with each member of the council prior to introduction. This meeting was a concept overview and an opportunity to digest the initial data and ask questions. The bill was introduced with small adjustments to address concerns raised by council members, but it fell short of the four required votes to pass.
Bills have a lifespan of 95 days from the date of introduction to be amended and voted on. If a bill does not reach a favorable form to receive four votes, it dies. If a bill is amended but receives only three votes, it fails. The importance of the forest conservation bill was never lost on me.
Members of the council, myself included, requested that the bill be held so that it may be put to a work group, similar to the stormwater management bill. It was important to me that the bill be given the attention and expertise I felt it required. The administration desired for the council to move forward under the 95-day time clock, so we did. This was no easy task. I recognized it was going to take an enormous bipartisan effort to accomplish what we all wanted, increased forest conservation, and a minimum of four votes.
Within a week of introduction, Bill 68-19 became my full-time job as I devoted hours a day to research, data study, jurisdiction review and application of the bill. I soon realized my colleague from District 2, Councilwoman Allison Pickard, was taking the same approach. We combined our efforts, and quickly we began dissecting the bill, section by section. I devoted hours to multiple meetings with the administration, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, engineers, the League of Conservation Voters, builders, community organizations and individuals. The data provided was extensive, conflicting, and covered years to a decade of forest conservation. One could easily have gotten lost in the data for 95 days.
By October, a significant amount of work had been done but was not yet completed when the first public hearing was held. The council heard three hours of compelling testimony for and opposed to the bill, some of which compelled amendments.
For example, there was opposition to the potential removal of protections for greenways (mapped contiguous forest identified by the county). A majority of the council felt if we are to use greenways as a land use mechanism, we should treat it similarly to critical area. This would mean a greenways commission and notification to landowners. The county is not yet at that point, and hasn’t approved a greenways map since the early 2000s. However, having protections of contiguous forest was important to me. After hearing the compelling testimony, I sponsored an amendment that ultimately protects forest of 75 acres or more and that have the potential for forest interior dwelling species (FIDS), like native birds and wildlife.
In total, the council worked through two successful rounds of amendments. The third round of amendments was defeated, which is not abnormal for a bill of this size. It is a process, and I asked for your patience and trust along the way.
On November 18, the Anne Arundel County Council passed the bill unanimously, 7-0. This was an incredible shift in support from where the bill was just two months prior. It was also a historic moment for Anne Arundel County.
No other jurisdiction in Maryland has increased the amount of forest that is required under state law to be conserved during the construction of residential, industrial, or commercial development. We are the first to increase those thresholds. Where we once had the lowest fee in lieu (fee paid instead of planting the required reforestation amount), we now have one of the highest fees. Also, we now have the highest fee in the state for clearing of trees in violation, and we have incentivized areas for revitalization.
The forest conservation bill is an example of good government, bipartisanship and community engagement. Without any one of these factors, I do not believe this bill would have been successful.
As we approach the new year, I will continue to dig deep on legislation large and small. The details are vital.
On December 16, the council will review the school utilization chart (Bill- 84-19), short-term rentals (Bills 87, 88 and 89-19) and residential wastewater connection charges and assessments (Bill 90-19).
I encourage you to remain engaged on local legislation and wish you and yours a happy holiday and New Year.