The following two letters were sent on successive days by Bill Onorato to each member of the Harford County Council. Copies were provided to The Dagger for publication:
Back in January when Bill 14-1 was being considered, we voiced our concerns about the lack of teeth contained in this bill as it pertained to protection of trees. You ignored our concerns and passed the bill without any amendments. Apparently, you concluded that none of what we were predicting would actually come to fruition. Well flash forward six months to today and everything that we have been screaming about has come true exactly as we predicted.
There are a total of 129 protected trees on the Eva Mar property not including numerous trees that were not properly identified on the Forest Stand Map. The developers are now proposing to cut down nearly 40% of the protected trees on the property including the ones not identified on the map. The reality is that the nearly 100% of the trees in the path of bulldozers will be cut down if the developers are allowed to have their way. The developers will surely try to argue that 60% are being saved. But those trees are all in areas where they cannot build anyway. The number of trees they are voluntarily saving is minimal at best and only when it does not cost them money. If a protected tree sits where they can build, it is coming down. Just that simple. You cannot spin it any other way.
The more upsetting aspect of this is your refusal to require a more stringent variance process for something of this scope. I get that a variance is not appropriate for a homeowner with one protected tree on a lot. But for sizeable developments, like Eva Mar, a variance process should be used. That has now led to the developers being brazen enough to simply submit a one-page letter in support of their waiver request. The reason the waivers are needed? They simply state that they cannot make enough money unless the trees are removed and, therefore, are experiencing undue hardship. One sentence. There is no offering of proof. There is no statement as to why alternate plans won’t work. Just a bald assertion. Would this hold up in a court of law? NO WAY! My message to the developers – “Tough luck! You should not have paid so much for the property then!” The protected trees on the property were NO secret. The forest stand map was done in 2012 before the property was under contract. That you failed to do your due diligence and made a bad business deal SHOULD NEVER BE AN ACCEPTABLE BASIS FOR UNDUE HARDSHIP. NEVER! And that is exactly what the developers are alleging in this case.
Think about it. If I stood up in a variance proceeding and said that a particular development would diminish my property value, what would you as the Board of Appeals ask for? You would ask for proof by the submission of a statement by a qualified appraiser. You would never accept my unsubstantiated opinion which is what the developers have presented to planning and zoning in support of their waiver request.
Not so in this case, because you failed us yet again and did not require a variance proceeding, the findings of fact required for the granting of a waiver are minimal at best. A bald assertion like this will apparently suffice. A developer can simply walk into planning and zoning with the mindset that all they need to do is make bald assertions and nothing more. This shows a total lack of regard for the environment and the law. All decisions made by the planning director are made outside of public view. Keeping these decisions inside a black box is contrary to having a transparent government.
If developers are allowed in this county to be granted waivers on such thin evidence, then the forest protections rules should just be repealed. Why go through the exercise at all? This is just another example of how developers have gotten the upper hand in this County.
We have been trying to get across to anyone who will listen is that these are not just ordinary woods. They are old, they are deep and they contain the beginnings of streams and other habitats. They contain deep forest dwelling birds such as the pileated woodpecker. They deserve more consideration than a simple one-page letter that says we can’t make enough money. These woods are what makes Harford County special. They should be an asset to the community. Instead they are being completely disregarded by money hungry developers whose only goal is to make as much money as possible off the land.
Please give these trees and the trees elsewhere in the County the respect they deserve. Please strengthen the reforestation sections of the zoning code as we suggested to prevent developers from making a complete and total mockery of the law. And more importantly do not sit idly by while the Eva Mar developers make a mockery of the laws you pass. Do not allow their waiver requests to be granted under these circumstances.
Thank you for your consideration.
In follow-up to my email from yesterday, attached is the waiver request for the protected trees filed by the developers. I stand corrected the request is technically two-pages, but substantively it is only one-page.
Again it simply should not be this easy to obtain a waiver to cut down that many protected trees. There is absolutely no proof whatsoever found in this letter.
For example, they state that water quality will not be affected. There is no proof at all for this statement. How can you say that when many of the trees for which waivers are being requested sit on slopes next to actual stream or in areas where streams begin? I sent the contour map yesterday so that you can see the slopes on which many of these trees sit. My understanding is that one of the reasons these trees are protected is because of their ability to hold soil and filter water. They are saying that cutting down 47 of these trees will have ZERO impact on water quality. Really? Prove it.
What are the solutions?
1. The developers should be made to suck it up lose a few lots. We do not owe them a living. If they only make $5 million instead of $5.5 million, then so be it.
2. The developers should be forced to provide proof as to why larger wooded lots are not an option?
3. Why not provide for a park where the protected trees are most concentrated? My understanding is that County parks and rec has a goal to maintain a certain number of acres of park space per 1,000 residents. You are putting 1,000 residents on Eva Mar in one shot. Why not have Parks & Rec buy some of the land for park space? And don’t tell me you don’t have the money because the County can find it to bail out other developers – see Water St. in Havre de Grace and Rock Glenn Park in Aberdeen. See attached proposal for park space. The area marked in green represents park space. This would benefit the residents of the CCRC in numerous ways as well. In addition it would cut down on density and thus alleviate traffic issues.
Again it simply should not be this easy for developers to avoid the requirements of the law. If the developers in this case are granted waivers for all 47 trees, then you might as well just take the law off the books because it will be rendered meaningless.