Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager will gladly say it over and over: “The City of Hagerstown is not a forest.”
But, according to Sager, Maryland lawmakers aren’t listening.
In the last three years, rural cities and counties across the state have tried to exempt builders from the strict requirements of the 1991 Forest Preservation Act – which essentially dictates that new or growing businesses leave equal the number of trees.
The procedure is often costly in counties where trees are more abundant than businesses. Rural Marylanders say the act was passed with the state’s more urbanized counties in mind, but varied attempts at exempting themselves have failed.
Sager, who has consistently spoken out on the issue, doesn’t see any change for the future.
Nor is the fact that Hagerstown has its own tree-planting initiatives impressing state environmentalists: A bill, pushed by Sager, that would have exempted municipalities in general was killed last week in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“The Senate committee doesn’t want to hear anything,” Sager said. “Their minds are made up – they think the City of Hagerstown is a forest.”
Garrett and Allegany are the only two counties exempted from the act, because they each have over 200,000 acres of trees – covering about 70 percent of the land. But Washington County, bordered to the east by mountains and to the west by a wildlife reserve, has no shortage of greenery. It is about 35 percent forested, state data shows.
“You have to wonder how it applies to us,” Sharon Disque of the county’s Economic Development Office said of the conservation law.
Meanwhile, the county’s center, enriched by the Potomac River valley, suffers from high unemployment and perceived remoteness from the state’s business centers. Its economic problems are aggravated by the fact that developers can go into nearby West Virginia or Pennsylvania where no such regulations hamper building, Disque said.
But Sager and others in Washington County get no sympathy from environmentalists.
“The local folks will tell you that they’ve got enough trees already, but that’s the way Anne Arundel County was when I moved here,” said Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel, who has steadfastly supported the Forest Conservation Act. “You need some statewide standards.”
Department of Natural Resources officials will not discuss an exemption, citing only the city’s failure to enforce the act.
“Hagerstown clearly has the authority to enact a local ordinance,” said Ginger Howell, state forest conservation coordinator. “They have not done so.”
Sager says this is no accident. The Hagerstown City Council has refused to adopt a set of compliance guidelines, most recently in 1994.
As a result, the state is still enforcing the act on its own.
Other Washington County municipalities such as Williamsport, Keedysville and Hancock have adopted regulations to comply.
“They’ve adopted them, but that doesn’t mean they like it,” Sager observed.
Hancock Mayor Ralph E. Wachter bore him out: “We look after our forests and trees very well, and we like to have the power to do what’s best for us.”
Wachter added the state’s forest law “is like a doctor diagnosing someone in California, when they’ve never seen the patient.”
A bill that would exempt 16 rural counties from the conservation act is Hagerstown’s last hope in the General Assembly this year. In a recent visit to Western Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said such a law would be acceptable. Sager, however, said its chances of passage are slim. -30-