Written by Mike Bonnell & Ben Alexandro
Last week on the last day of the 90 day session, the Maryland General Assembly passed three groundbreaking pieces of legislation that can serve as possible models for other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These included the Maryland the Beautiful Act (SB 470, HB 631), Green Space Equity Act (HB 503, SB 923) and the Forest Preservation and Retention Act (HB 723, SB 526). All make important changes and stand up influential programs to advance conservation. These pieces of legislation will help partners to conserve more land, to ensure that land is conserved more equitably and to improve the quality of already conserved land in Maryland.
The Maryland the Beautiful Act (SB 470, HB 631) creates an ambitious vision for Maryland’s future. The legislation establishes a state goal to conserve 30% of Maryland’s lands by 2030 and 40% by 2040. The bill also stands up a Local Land Trust Revolving Loan Program and the 40×40 Land Conservation Implementation Grant Program, both of which will greatly accelerate progress towards these goals.
The Local Land Trust Revolving Loan Program will accelerate conservation efforts by creating a bridge loan opportunity for private land trusts in Maryland to borrow capital for fee simple or easement projects. This capital is repaid once the property in question is placed under easement or transferred to a government agency. The revolving loan fund provides land trusts another source of capital to leverage in conservation projects and can help land trusts to act more quickly on conservation transactions. Funds are mainly from state budget appropriations and general funds of the Maryland Environmental Trust. The bill allows Maryland to allocate to the fund any revenue from the Maryland transfer tax that is in excess of the fiscal year estimates.
The 40×40 Land Conservation Implementation Grant Program is for land trusts and other organizations to carry out more preservation in pursuit of the new statewide goals. Grant programs are often focused on funding the upfront costs of acquiring valuable lands. There are very few programs in Maryland that provide financial assistance for capacity building needed to enhance the surrounding work necessary to advance conservation. The lack of improved capacity (staff time, expertise, etc.) in organizations is one of the barriers keeping them from being able to access conservation grants. Land trusts or other grantees must maintain the land in perpetuity. Thankfully this grant program specifically outlines $50,000 per year for capacity building and organizational support, monitoring and stewardship, and $50,000 per year for stewardship education and training for conservation organizations. In addition, the program authorizes $135,000 per year for grants focused on environmental education. This will foster institutional growth of the land conservation movement in organizations and communities.
The Green Space Equity Act (HB 503, SB 923) establishes the Green Space Equity grant program for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This provides funds for community greenspace projects within or immediately adjacent to overburdened and/or underserved communities. Local governments and land trusts are eligible applicants to acquire and improve lands for public use. Other nonprofits can apply for funds to improve lands for public use or to improve the conservation values of lands conserved. Partnerships among eligible applicants are encouraged. Program Open Space funds from the DNR share are allocated in the following amounts: $5 million in FY 2025, $7 million in FY 2026, and $10 million in FY 2027 and each fiscal year thereafter. A Green Space Equity Advisory Board is also established, to ensure that the voices of residents from eligible communities are heard. This program responds to one of the recommended actions in the CCP draft Public Health, Green Space, Equity Plan.
Finally, the Forest Preservation and Retention Act (HB 723, SB 526) made important changes to already existing forest conservation law in Maryland. It establishes a statewide goal of net forest gain moving into the future. In addition, it outlines that all existing forest cover must have one acre replanted for every acre that is permanently cut down as a state minimum. There are some exceptions to this, namely transit-oriented development, new federal government facilities, multi-family housing and solar facilities. However, having lesser mitigation requirements in these areas may incentivize development in communities that need revitalization rather than sprawl that impacts natural areas. The bill also allows half of the mitigation requirement to be met through forest banking which would incentivize farmers and other landowners to permanently protect lands and plant them with trees. It also allows localities to implement their own standards that may be more effective at growing that county’s or municipality’s forest cover. This bill improves a 30 year old act to ensure that developers, other companies and government agencies that cut down forests pay for the conservation solution. Over time, this legislation will save thousands of acres of forests. Maryland provides a road map to ensure that construction projects either protect forests or pay for the conservation and mitigation to offset the forests they remove.
These significant legislative initiatives are now under review by Governor Moore and his staff. It is likely that the Governor will sign these bills.
One goal and benefit of large landscape collaboratives such as the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is to share effective strategies among partners and across jurisdictions. We present these initiatives from Maryland as models for consideration by the other Bay states to begin to modify and devise their own policies for accelerating land conservation efforts while meeting the green space needs of underserved communities. Maryland’s recent victories prove that meaningful changes in state policies can be achieved for the benefit of all.
In-text image credit:
- Maryland General Assembly: Zan Ready via creative commons
- Maryland Conservation: mypubliclands via creative commons
- Money: Pictures of money via creative commons
- Forest Preservation:
Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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