With all the recent focus on controversies involving federal environmental regulatory action, we often forget that states continue to play a leading role in environmental and natural resources policy.  State activity often flies under the radar, but can have a tremendous impact on development projects, large and small.  The Maryland legislature is currently engaged in debate over one such potentially significant proposal.

A bill that would amend the Maryland Forest Conservation Act (FCA) to require more stringent conservation measures is scheduled for hearings in the Maryland General Assembly on February 20 (SB 610) and 21 (HB 766).  The bill greatly expands the areas that are considered a priority for retention under the FCA, most significantly by broadly defining “contiguous forest” as at least 1) 5 acres in a priority funding area that connects the largest undeveloped or most vegetated tracts of land within and adjacent to the site; 2) 10 acres that is in a local watershed that is less than 40% forested; or 3) 20 acres.  For forests considered “priority retention areas,” the bill requires mitigation at a 1:1 replacement ratio, a dramatic increase from the 0.25:1 ratio typical under current law.

The bill also limits the discretion of state and local authorities to allow the clearing of priority forests.  Currently, priority retention areas are to be left in an undisturbed state unless the applicant demonstrates to the satisfaction of approval authorities that “reasonable efforts have been made to protect them and the plan cannot be reasonably altered.”  Under the bill, a state or local authority may not approve the clearing of priority retention areas based 1) solely on cost; 2) on preferred site design; 3) on a desire to obtain maximum zoning density or intensity; or 4) on a desire to conduct mass grading or clearing.  The approval authority will be required to explain in writing that no other alternatives to the clearing exist.  The bill will prohibit the clearing of priority retention areas for temporary sediment and erosion control devices or stormwater management devices.

The Department of Legislative Services’ fiscal analysis is not yet available.  Interested parties may submit their views on the proposed legislation by mail or by personally appearing at the scheduled hearings.  The committees considering SB610/HB766 will report back to their respective chambers with their recommendations.  The legislation must be passed by a majority of each chamber and signed by the governor before it can become law.  A gubernatorial veto can be overridden only by a three-fifths vote of the membership of each house.