Capital Op-Ed: “Steuart Pittman’s half measure won’t stop Anne Arundel forest loss”

Capital Gazette: Opinion, September 4, 2019

By: Gerald Winegrad

County Executive Steuart Pittman proposed legislation this week to deal with the staggering loss of forest in Anne Arundel County. His administration has discovered that the pro-development posture of county officials over the years, propped up by huge campaign contributions by developers has led to a significant loss of forest cover — 2,775 acres in the last decade.

This conversion of forest to impervious surfaces has led to major stormwater runoff problems causing flooding, erosion, and pollution flows to our creeks and streams.

Stormwater runoff is the county’s No. 1 water quality problem and the cost to fix it is close to $1 billion just to meet Clean Water Act requirements by 2025. This problem is exacerbated by the continuing loss of forest which the county calculates was 40 percent of state forest loss, much more than any other county.

The county executive and his bright young environmental advisers are acutely aware of the value of forests for protecting water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and sequestering carbon. Pittman commendably is tackling the land abuse that has gone on in this county for centuries. He debunks the myth that growth pays for itself with expansion of the tax base which he notes forces government to provide expanded services.

So, given all of this, why not introduce an ordinance to end this loss from development as the city did in 2018? Why introduce a half-measure still allowing substantial forest loss? The city law strictly regulates forest loss guaranteeing 100% reforestation to achieve no net loss in the city.

Most troubling is that candidate Pittman in 2018 pledged to introduce a similar no-net loss ordinance in the county. Why is the county executive reneging on his pledge?

He knows the ordinance he is introducing will not stop the loss of forest from development. He has chosen to listen to bright, young aides who convinced him not to honor his campaign pledge because they thought a no net loss law would not pass. Isn’t putting a stop to forest loss worth fighting for? Anne Arundel County could become the model for counties and the state to emulate.

Pittman is an honorable man and cares deeply about the environment. I continue to ponder how it is that environmental leaders much younger than I seem satisfied to make incremental changes, some of them marginal, instead of fighting for the more significant changes that are absolutely necessary to turn around the destruction of our natural world and the poisoning of our waters, air and land.

Some environmental leaders and their organizations will likely be wholeheartedly supporting this bill just because it does something — it’s better than nothing. This is a false choice and will doom efforts to end forest loss.

I cite but one example as to how ineffective the law would be in practice: if the 176-acre tract at Crystal Spring was still in the county, the planned clearing of 30 acres of mature forest could occur with ZERO reforestation required. Under city law, the city is forcing the developer to clear less forest and replant 100% of forest cleared. The only alternative would be to pay $435,600 [per acre] in-lieu-of-replanting which they will never do.

The proposed county ordinance would do nothing but allow the clearing of 30 acres of forest with no replanting. Where’s the progress?

While serving as a state senator, I was told in 1985 that my bill to ban phosphates in detergents would never pass the legislature. The phosphate ban became law and was then enacted in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania. This led to a significant reduction in phosphorus flowing to the Chesapeake Bay from sewage treatment plants and reduced operating costs by tens of millions of dollars.

It was a tough fight, but meaningful change always is. Half-measures are condemning the bay to a slow, inexorable death.

Retired state Sen. Gerald Winegrad is a longtime environmental advocate. He lives in Annapolis.

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