In March, 2014, Montgomery County enacted the controversial tree canopy law after months of debating between county government officials, homebuilders, and conservationists. A little over two years have passed, and the conversation continues to fuel a heated debate. One question is still running rampant: is the tree canopy legislation working?

So, what is the Montgomery County Tree Canopy Law?

Trees help communities in a plethora of ways, from cleaning the air and water to reducing heating and cooling costs of homes and businesses. The economic and social vitality of Montgomery County, and every other county, are dependent on trees in one way or another. The tree canopy law was enacted to protect the general well-being and natural environment of MoCo. It requires the planting of new trees on lots to offset the impact of development.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, though. Builders are required to replace trees based on the overall area of the land disturbed, whether there were trees or not. So, often the number of trees required does not match the number of trees removed. If a tree cannot be planted in a specific area, there is a fee of $250 for each tree. These fees will be collected by the county, allegedly to only establish trees as close to that area as possible.

 

Is it working?

The law seems great, right? We need trees in the community, and this should be a way to keep the natural environment thriving. But, here’s the kicker: it’s not really working.

The Montgomery County tree canopy legislation is actually conflicting with the strict stormwater management regulations. Instead of expanding the natural world, the conflicting demands are resulting in a higher number of trees lost, no incentive to save them, and a major hindrance to planting new ones. To put it in perspective: as of May 2016, the county government has only planted 532 of the 3,629 trees paid for. Meanwhile, they’ve racked up $907,520 in their tree canopy account. And of those 532 trees they have planted, most have been planted in different ZIP codes than the original projects called for.

 

Why is it so hard to plant trees?

The county requires 400 square feet of clear space around any new tree planted so that its roots can grow. Unfortunately, in most circumstances this is virtually impossible, especially after complying with the stringent stormwater management regulations. On lots smaller than 12,000 square feet—most Bethesda neighborhoods—builders cannot get credit for planting new trees in most circumstances. Underground stormwater tanks installed on these lots based on the regulations leave little room for new trees according to the 400-square-foot requirement. So, home builders are usually forced to pay something to the county government on the majority of projects. Basically the county is collecting fees and either planting trees somewhere else or not at all.

 

Now what?

Sandy Spring Builders and other home building companies had proposed a plan requiring trees to be planted on every lot, but it was rejected by county executives. If approved, there would’ve already been 750 new trees planted from the properties where they were required. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

It is clear the tree canopy legislation is not working and Montgomery County is considering new policies to improve the situation. To voice your opinion, comments, questions, or concerns, email the department of environmental protection at askDEP@montgomerycountymd.gov or file a complaint here. If you’d like to follow updates on this and other passed or pending legislation in Montgomery County, please visit the website for Renewing Montgomery.