In a 100 to 38 favorable vote, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 991 in both chambers with amendments aimed at addressing environmental concerns raised by environmental advocacy groups. HB 991, now renamed the “Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021”, appropriated government funding to a series of programs designed to preserve tree canopies and other forest protections. The amendments made significant technical changes to the bill, particularly modifying any use of the term “preservation” to be replaced with the term “conservation” and specifically noted that qualifying forest mitigation banks were approved only on or before December 31, 2020. In addition, the Bill created certain incentives for landowners to maximize participation in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, by providing those landowners who enroll land planted with a forest streamside buffer to receive a one-time signing bonus of $1,000 per acre of land enrolled. The Bill further set aside $2,500,000 of the annual state budget to fund tree planting, environmental programs, and government positions including:
- Creating the 5 Million Tree Program Coordinator position to provide technical assistance, planning, and coordination related to tree plantings, tree buffer management, and forest management
- Requiring the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, in consultation with the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Planning, the Department of Agriculture, and the Chesapeake Bay Program, as appropriate to conduct a technical review to review changes in forest over and tree canopy in the State.
- Granting additional funding to the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund to cover the costs of site preparation, labor, and materials for tree-planting projects, maintaining trees following a planting project, and other projects related to the replanting and replenishment of trees; and
- Establishing the Urban Trees Programs which will provide grants to qualified organizations for tree-planting projects in underserved areas.
Although these amendments do not effect a developer’s ability to use forest mitigation banks as a method to obtain afforestation or reforestation credits, the use of these banks only is temporary. This Section of the Bill is only effective until June 30, 2024 with no further action required by the General Assembly. In Montgomery County, the Planning Department approved the use of mitigation banks that protect existing forests to continue selling credits until the expiration of this particular provision of the Bill. The Planning Department continued processing certificates of compliance from approved forest banks that protect existing forests through April 12, 2021, but are no longer reviewing applications for new forest mitigation banks. The Planning Department will process certificates of compliance and review applications for forest mitigation banks that plant new forests.
Previously, an amendment introduced in the House stated that the use of qualified conservation completed in forest mitigation banks to obtain an afforestation or reforestation credit granted may not exceed 20% of the forest area encumbered in perpetuity, a sharp decline from the previously allowed 50%. The 20% decrease was struck by a senate floor amendment and the amount of credits granted to a developer was restored to 50%. The Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021 went into effect on May 30, 2021.