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Environmentalists critical of Prince George’s development bill

A bill critics say favors developers and weakens forest protections in Prince George’s County has drawn the ire of environmental groups.

The Prince George’s delegation on Friday voted to support a bill in the General Assembly that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says exempts specific development projects in the county from the Forest Conservation Act. The vote paves the way for the bill to receive a hearing in the Environment and Transportation Committee.

The original bill only sought to adjust the term “net tract area,” which is a defined term in the Forest Conservation Act that protects “priority forests” during development. The act was originally approved in 1991 following recommendations made by a task force created by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, according to the Department of Natural Resources website.

The bill amending the act is sponsored by the Prince George’s County and Montgomery County delegations.

Elaine Lutz, staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the original language in the law was strategically defined to prevent developers from including protected trees in their formula for clearing and mitigation requirements. She argued that language prevents “double dipping” by a developer.

Members of the Prince George’s County delegation have amended the bill, Lutz said, to provide wholesale exemptions for specific projects. These projects are not specified by name but by characteristics. The version of the bill online has not been changed to reflect those amendments.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also objects because the proposed changes, which specifically mention Prince George’s County, would set precedent because there are currently no jurisdiction-specific carve outs in the act.

“That would have a really negative effect across the entire county, where Prince George’s County is already the highest rate of deforestation in the state, according to data released under the Forest Conservation Act,” Lutz said.

Del. Jay Walker, the Prince George’s County Delegation chairman, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The bill does have opponents in the delegation. Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk said she’s against the bill because it helps to undermine progress the state has made to project the environment.

“The bill would allow the developer to take credit for assisting forest that is already protected, which means the developer that clears the forest will have fewer mitigation requirements … we should be protecting our tree cover … it would help our local rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay,” Peña-Melnyk said.

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About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.