New Forest Conservation Act Ordinance in Need of Major Amendments

Ordinance Under Review by Planning Commission Proposed Minimal Protections for Remaining City Forests

The newest proposal for the City’s version of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 0-22-16, is currently under review by the City Planning Commission. Alderman Littmann and three other council members have introduced this new Ordinance to respond to the legal insufficiencies and lack of clarity with the City’s current FCA compliance, problems that have arisen because the City failed to adopt its own FCA ordinance and procedures as required by state law and instead adopted the state FCA by reference in 1992.

We, along with several other conservation leaders, strongly oppose the enactment of 0-22-16 unless substantial changes are adopted. We have submitted a formal memo to the Planning Commission outlining our suggested improvements and urging them to include these changes in their suggestions to the Council.

The ordinance (0-22-16) is a substantially weakened version of the last City FCA Ordinance proposed by Alderman Littman (0-32-14). We, and others in the conservation community, worked at great length with Alderman Littman, the Planning Commission and others to suggest changes to 0-32-14, which was amended to meet the valid concerns and wise recommendations of the Planning Commission. This legislation would have greatly improved protections for the City’s remaining forests. However, the amended Ordinance was vigorously opposed by the development community and never received a vote from the City Council.

The new Ordinance (0-22-16) was developed and introduced without any input or review from the environmental community. The majority of the progressive changes we sought and those that were already in the original Littmann ordinance (O-21-14) have been removed from the new version, including a no net loss provision for forests and more stringent reforestation and afforestation requirements. The ordinance now is a skeletal, de minimis approach to forest conservation falling well short of what is needed to honor the City’s commitment in its Comprehensive Plan to attain a 50% tree canopy by 2036. In fact, the current proposed measure may not meet even meet state law and criteria.

We have now learned from City officials that many of these positive changes were removed after the Ordinance met resistance from the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who must give approval before the City’s Ordinance can take effect. DNR is wrongfully insisting that the state Forest Conservation Act (FCA) prohibits local governments from exceeding certain threshold requirements for reforestation or afforestation and thus trying to block the City’s efforts to adopt a more stringent Forest Conservation Ordinance. Please see our secondary memo to the Planning Commission in response to this issue.

The state FCA is crystal clear in allowing local jurisdictions broad leeway to craft and adopt more stringent measures than the minimum standards the state FCA requires. Attorney General Brian Frosh confirmed this in his Opinion of October 10, 2015, which specifically clears the City of Annapolis to adopt a no net loss policy in its FCA ordinance, higher reforestation and afforestation requirements, as well as other more stringent measures it may choose to protect its dwindling forests. In an extraordinary politically driven decision, DNR is choosing to ignore the Attorney General’s Opinion and clearly acting illegally and wrongfully in trying to restrict the City from adopting a more conservation-oriented ordinance.

It is our hope that the Planning Commission will take action to recommend the more stringent measures as they did last year and again require a no net loss provision for all development sites, the higher reforestation and afforestation requirements, and the other more stringent measures adopted, including a provision that strictly prohibits clearing of any trees pending the conclusion of all appeals under the FCA and a final adjudication.

After 23 years under a woefully inadequate and “make it up as we go along” City FCA process, it would be far better to enact a strong measure to protect the dwindling acreage of forests in the City than to enact a weak ordinance that leaves us not much better off than we are now.