Homebuilders, developers and other applicants have chosen to pay a $250 tree replacement fee instead of planting a tree themselves 88 percent of the time since Montgomery County’s Tree Canopy Law took effect in March 2014.
According to an annual county report released in May, the county has used only a small percentage of the $907,250 in fees it received to plant 532 of the 3,629 trees paid for, and many have been planted in different ZIP codes than the projects that triggered the requirements.
In the Bethesda 20817 ZIP code, where home teardown projects are most prevalent, applicants have planted just 65 trees on project lots while making the $250 payment for 1,250 replacement trees required by the law.
Meanwhile, the county has used the fees to plant just 46 new trees in 20817, while planting 79 trees in the 20910 ZIP code of Silver Spring, 44 trees in the 20902 ZIP code of Silver Spring and 43 trees in the 20850 ZIP code of Rockville.
Stan Edwards, chief of the Environmental Policy and Compliance Division of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said Tuesday the county is working to better focus new tree plantings in areas as close as possible to the properties that trigger the fees.
The law requires the county to first try to plant new trees in the same sub-watershed of the projects that triggered the fees. Builders are required to replace trees based on the amount of land disturbed during a project, meaning the amount of trees required doesn't always match the amount of trees removed.
Edwards said most of the trees planted through the county’s Tree Montgomery program were planted on a first-come, first-serve basis on property whose owners volunteered their land. The county kicked off the program, which is funded largely by the $250 fees, in April 2015 with a ceremonial planting event at a low-rise apartment complex in Chevy Chase that had recently lost damaged trees.
“We are now moving into a more targeted phase,” Edwards said. “We’re working pretty aggressively, for example, with community members in East Bethesda who have been very active with this and good partners. But development is happening all over the county so the program will always have some planting elsewhere.”
Homebuilders, many who still oppose aspects of the 2014 law, say the program isn’t serving its intended purpose to replace lost tree canopy.
Bob Kaufman, senior vice president of the Maryland Building Industry Association, also said the number of trees paid for rather than replaced on site also proves the requirements are too stringent, a case builders have made before.
“The Tree Canopy bill is clearly not working to replace canopy where the disturbance is occurring,” Kaufman told Bethesda Beat Tuesday. “Most of the money collected is from lots less than 12,000 square feet and most are in the Bethesda area, but few trees are planted by homeowners or the county in those areas. Further, the fund keeps growing far faster than the money can be spent.”
Edwards said the (DEP) has a long list of property owners interested in county-planted trees paid for by the fees.
Kaufman, who represents a number of home builders active in Bethesda, said his group is looking for “minor changes to the law” including loosening a requirement for 400 square feet of clearance around a new tree to protect its roots.
On smaller lots of less than 12,000 square feet—a common scenario for home teardown projects in older Bethesda neighborhoods—builders say they often can’t get credit for planting a new tree because of separate stormwater management requirements.
Homebuilders often use underground stormwater tanks on new home projects, which when installed on the smaller lots can leave little room to put new trees and still meet the 400-square-foot root zone requirement.
County officials have said homebuilders could use alternative stormwater management techniques or build smaller homes.
But homebuilders have countered they must provide the types of homes that are popular in the real estate market.
Edwards said DEP has a long list of volunteer property owners for the county’s tree planting program. He said the county and its tree planting contractors weren’t able to supply trees to all volunteers in the Oct. 15-May 15 planting season instituted by the Tree Canopy Law.
The tree planting fund actually totals a little more than $1 million. The $250 fees from builders don’t cover the full cost of planting and maintaining the new trees for two years, which currently averages $553 per tree, Edwards said.
“I think we’re keeping up with the funds we have and this will be a very public process,” Edwards said. “I don’t think anybody will look back in two or three years and say, ‘The county’s sitting on a bunch of money.’”