Montgomery County, Maryland, officials thought it was cause to celebrate when the local leaders planted a few new trees to begin the implementation of the county's recently adopted "Tree Canopy" law. But local media coverage of the event drew the ire of some area builders. The beef? Website Bethesda Now's use of the term "mansionization."
The original report, "MoCo Begins Replacing Trees Lost To 'Mansionization'," by Aaron Kraut, read: "County officials gathered to celebrate the planting of 37 shade trees at a low-rise apartment complex on the edge of Rock Creek Park in Chevy Chase. The trees were paid for by developers who removed trees on private single-family home properties, in most cases to build home additions, renovations or new 'mini-mansions.'"
The county started assessing tree fees from contractors performing remodels or teardowns in March 2014, and has collected about $350,000 so far, the website reported. ""There are always people who don't quite appreciate the value and they might take down a few too many trees on their property," Councilmember Hans Riemer said at the event Monday. "The appropriate response from the county I think is to continue to plant more and more trees and so we're always strengthening our canopy rather than losing it."
Builders may or may not appreciate trees. But Montgomery County builders who got wind of the Bethesda Now story definitely didn't appreciate the website's coverage of the issue. The following day, Bethesda Now shared some feedback gathered by Bob Kaufman of the Maryland Building Industry Association (see: "Home Builders Unhappy With Coverage Of Tree Canopy Law," by Aaron Kraut).
BIA exec Kaufman wrote:
"The attached article provides a good example of biased, sloppy and ill-informed writing about an issue important to the community. Not only did the reporter not include the building community to comment and educate the reporter, the reporter persisted in using one-sided, inaccurate and frankly pejorative descriptions of the current building activity and the policy to replace canopy trees in Bethesda. Homeowners building additions or building new homes on existing lots have to comply with new storm water policies that effectively require the owner to grade the entire site and pay over $3000 per lot for trees. And should the homeowner wish to plant trees, the County law offers no credit for replanting on site unless each tree can be assured over 400 sq. feet of unobstructed space. While the County may require 12 trees, the homeowner has an impossible time to find space to plant even one tree and get credit. Further, the new homeowner has to pay for trees EVEN IF THE SITE HAD NO TREES because the law is based on grading and NOT ON TREE CLEARING. Now the County has raised over $300,000 in one year and so far bought and planted 75 trees. At that rate, it may take 10 years just to spend the first years collection of home owner funds. How can the media suggest fairness or balance when they persist in using pejorative "slang" to describe new home building and choose to report from only one side of an issue? New home owners and their builders increase the value of property, make infrastructure improvements, add new jobs, pay fees and taxes and substantially increase the tax base for revenue that can be used for public schools, road improvement, public safety and general services. Shame on you."
Builder Chuck Sullivan chimed in:
"Responsible 'reporting' should include the perspective of the most impacted stakeholders – the home buyer and their builder, yet this 'report' excludes them. I find it outrageous that 'news' agencies and government representatives continue to describe the revitalization of older communities as 'mansionization', a derogatory and inappropriate term for a new home. This is typical of the adversarial relationship that has evolved between regulatory agencies and environmentalists vs small builders trying to make a living. It doesn't have to be this way, we could be partners working on a common goal of replanting trees, but 'articles' like this only promote a fight."
For a little history on the Montgomery County tree canopy ordinance, see this 2013 Washington Post article ("Council committee approves measure to protect tree canopy in Montgomery," by Bill Turque).
Local builder groups, including a grass-roots builder organization called "Renewing Montgomery," lobbied county lawmakers to make the rule more palatable, reported the Post, inserting provisions that let builders get credit for trees they replant themselves. Renewing Montgomery's guide to the resulting rule is posted on the group's website (see: "Property Rights: Tree Renewal").