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PLANS FOR MCPS’ IMMINENT DESTRUCTION OF

THE McKENNEY HILLS FOREST


AND CONTINUING EFFORTS TO SAVE IT
BY:
T.J. GLEASON
McKENNEY HILLS FOREST PRESERVATION GROUP
03.02.11

Executive Summary

All the requisite decisions have been made by all the relevant public
agencies to permit MCPS to begin construction of a large, new
McKenney Hills elementary school. In the process, approval has been
given to cut down 90 trees and so seriously damage another 33 that
they may also have to be cut down. If this is allowed to happen, MCPS
will have destroyed what ecologists have called the most diverse and
most ecologically important forest in the down-county area, with many
trees well over 100 years old and over 90’ tall. If all goes according to
plan MCPS will begin the process of destroying the forest on March 15,
2011.

The McKenney Hills Forest Preservation Group supports the timely


construction of a new school on the McKenney Hills site. However, we
have also opposed and will continue to oppose this completely
unnecessary destruction of the forest. We believe that the school and
the forest are not at all incompatible. Rather, they should be able to
exist in harmony as did the previous elementary school which stood on
the same site for 60 years.

We stand ready to work with MCPS at any time to avoid the impending
disaster of the destruction of the McKenney Hills Forest. There are
many options MCPS has not yet seriously considered which, if
implemented, could result in saving the forest.

We urge all like minded citizens of Montgomery County to join with us


to oppose this senseless destruction of one of our county’s most
precious forests and we urge MCPS to work with us to avoid the
unnecessary destruction of the McKenney Hills Forest.

Background

MCPS has been planning a new McKenney Hills ES for nearly 2 years.
The process involved parents of school children but it excluded citizens
without elementary school children, who were never notified that a
new school was being planned and were not involved in the planning
process.

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We became aware that MCPS was planning a new McKenney Hills ES
only in late September of last year, 1 month prior to a Planning Board
hearing on MCPS’ preliminary forest conservation plan (PFCP). When
we saw this plan we were appalled by what it had in store for the
McKenney Hills Forest.

The McKenney Hills Forest consists of 8 forested acres owned by MCPS


at the core of a larger, 50-acre forest stretching from the McKenney
Hills local park to the Capitol View Legacy Open Space parcel to the
south. The parcel owned by MCPS is “the best of the best” and has
been assessed by local ecologists as the most diverse and most
ecologically important forest in the down-county area, with many trees
well over 100 years old and over 90’ tall.

The McKenney Hills Forest parcel owned by MCPS has been called an
“exceptional forest resource area” by local conservation officials, who
have identified in it an unprecedented number of specimen trees of
diverse species including many with trunks of 40” and greater
diameter. The sustainability of the larger forest depends to a large
extent on the level of stewardship and protection provided for this
unique and fragile core parcel. Thus, MCPS’ plan to cut down many, if
not most of the mature trees within this parcel shows a disturbing lack
of stewardship and also underlines the need to revise the current FFCP
in order to protect this irreplaceable resource.

A member of our group measured the cross section of an 18” oak (the
median size of the trees MCPS plans to remove) and found 87 rings,
indicating an 87 year old tree. If extrapolated to a 30” specimen oak,
the age of that tree would be 145 years old and the age of a 40” tree
would be 193 years. Thus, the specimen and other significant trees
MCPS plans to cut down are, in fact, irreplaceable for many
generations to come.

The McKenney Hills Forest is also home to many rare birds and other
wildlife such as Pileated Woodpeckers that require an old growth forest
to survive. The forest is also the living ecological heart of our
community. To destroy this forest would be an unconscionable act and
yet that is exactly what MCPS is poised to do.

Whereas, the previous McKenney Hills ES had a capacity of 240


students, the new school will be 3 times that size. To accommodate
the larger school MCPS plans to push development far into the
surrounding forest. No one in our community suspected that MCPS
would even consider destroying such a gem of a forest and it was
evident that even though the site was zoned R-60. Certainly, no

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private developer would have been allowed to cut down even a single
tree on such steep slopes and highly erodible soils. Nevertheless, it
was clear MCPS intended to cut down a very large number of trees. In
response to this threat we organized the McKenney Hills Forest
Preservation Group.

After encountering resistance from MCPS, 2 days prior to the October


28th Planning Board hearing on the PFCP we struck a deal with MCPS in
the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that appeared to
save some of the forest they intended to cut down. We naïvely felt
that we had saved the forest, but subsequent events would prove us
mistaken, mainly due to the fact that the full scope of MCPS’ tree
removal plans were not revealed to the public until very late in the
process.

MCPS’ Final Forest Destruction Plan For The McKenney Hills


Forest

Although MCPS incorporated some of the terms of the MOU into its
Final Forest Conservation Plan (FFCP), we were again appalled at what
we saw when we obtained a copy of that document one week before it
was to be presented to the Planning Board.

Under the PFCP, a total of 8 specimen trees were to be removed. Under


the FFCP, a total of 15 specimen trees are to be removed and an
additional 19 specimen trees were placed in the “Save and Monitor”
category, which are trees expected to sustain such significant damage
to their critical root zones that they may be cut down if MCPS chooses
to do so. Thus, a total of 34 specimen trees could be cut down. (A
specimen tree has a “diameter at breast height” (DBH) of 30” or
greater.)

MCPS’ FFCP also revealed that 18 “significant” trees (24”-29” DBH) will
be cut down and another 14 will be placed in the “Save and Monitor”
category for a total of 32 significant trees. MCPS also plans to cut
down another 57 significant and smaller trees (6”-24”) located within
25 feet of the Limits of Disturbance (LOD). Thus, MCPS definitely plans
to cut down a total of 90 trees and another 33 will possibly be cut
down for a total of 123 trees. This is a far cry from MCPS’ PFCP that
showed only 8 trees would be cut down.

Many of the trees slated for removal are located outside the LOD and
thus their removal is not necessary for the school’s construction.
Rather, their removal is predicated on a subjective judgment by MCPS
to eliminate the potential hazard of limbs that may fall in the heart of
the forest.

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In addition, on at least two occasions, MCPS has stated that they
intend to cut any tree anywhere on the site if they believe it poses a
hazard, regardless of whether they have prior approval. Thus, every
dead or damaged tree in the forest will also likely be cut down and, as
a result, the sustainability and integrity of the entire 50 acre McKenney
Hills Forest will be compromised because it’s most important and
highest quality core parcel will be heavily cut down and significantly
degraded.

If these events transpire as planned, it is certain that MCPS will


succeed in destroying an irreplaceable gem of a forest. This tragedy is
compounded by the fact that the planned level of destruction is
unnecessary. It is now clear that a more appropriate name for MCPS’
Final Forest Conservation Plan is the McKenney Hills Final Forest
Destruction Plan.

The intent of both the Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law


and the Maryland Forest Conservation Act is to preserve exactly the
type of high priority, old growth forest that is the McKenney Hills
Forest. Instead, MCPS has skillfully navigated the rules to destroy the
forest. This perversion of the spirit of these laws cannot be allowed to
stand not only because it is morally wrong but also because it also sets
a very bad precedent for how developers throughout the county can
use laws intended to protect our forests to destroy them instead.

MCPS is the largest public agency in our county with a $2 billion/year


budget that comprises over 50% of the county’s total budget. It has a
lot of weight to throw around and is used to getting what it wants. In
the case of McKenney Hills, it has defined its constituency very
narrowly as parents with children who will be attending the new
school.

In our experience, the views of those who do not fall within that
category have simply not been considered even though they comprise
the overwhelming majority of the citizens and voters of Montgomery
County. If MCPS wishes to maintain public support of their policies
they should avoid the single-minded pursuit of their construction
programs even when those programs will result in the senseless
destruction of a community’s treasured environmental and other
resources.

The McKenney Hills Forest Preservation Group played by the rules from
the moment we heard about the plans for the new school until the last
Planning Board hearing by trying to get MCPS to modify its site plans to
protect as much of the forest as possible. In recent weeks, however,

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we have had to conclude that MCPS’ strategy has been to adhere to
the letter of the law only so it could eviscerate its spirit. This is the
antithesis of how a responsible public agency should act toward the
citizens, voters and taxpayers of Montgomery County.

Verdict on the Forest: Execution By Chain Saw: March 15, 2011

The FFCP was approved by the Planning Board on February 17th and
the Board of Education unanimously approved an easement on
February 28th. There is now no regulatory body standing in the way of
the destruction of the McKenney Hills Forest. We expect that MCPS will
begin the process of destroying the forest in mid-March.

The McKenney Hills Forest Preservation Group regards this outcome as


an environmental outrage; an insult to our community; technically
unnecessary; and contrary to the letter and the intent of the laws of
the state of Maryland and of Montgomery County.

We Will Continue To Work To Save The Forest

The fact of the matter is that schools and the environment are not
inherently in conflict. Rather, it is possible that they can coexist in a
close and even symbiotic relationship as did the old McKenney Hills
School which stood on this same site for 60 years. The best time for
MCPS to take off its blinders and consider these other values is now
and the best place to start is by entering into a commitment to let our
forest live!

We know that there are many options for substantially reducing the
number of trees that need to be cut down to make way for the new
school that have yet to be seriously considered by MCPS. Those
options would not in any way impact the design of the school or its
construction schedule and yet could save a large amount of the forest.
We urge MCPS to work with us to make the changes needed to save
the forest.

Despite the fact that the forest is on the verge of destruction we do not
intend to throw in the towel because as we all know, “it ain’t over ‘til
its over” and until the chain saws have cut down the last tree of the
McKenney Hills Forest we intend to continue to do all we can to save it.

We urge all like-minded citizens of Montgomery County to join us in


this effort to save the forest.

For Further Information Contact:

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T.J. Gleason
McKenney Hills Forest Preservation Group
tcjgleason@comcast.net

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