By Kelly Livingston 

The City of College Park’s goal of increasing the local tree canopy was under discussion during recent city council meetings. The council also weighed the option of using Program Open Space funds to sustain and manage the canopy. The program, which is administered by Prince George’s County, provides funding and assistance for the acquisition and development of open spaces, including recreational areas.

At the June 8 council meeting, College Park Director of Planning Terry Schum advised councilmembers about the Program Open Space funding process: The council submits a yearly allocation plan to the county, which receives state funds for distribution to localities. After the county evaluates and approves the city’s plan and sets funds aside, the council must submit a program application to the Maryland Board of Public Works. If the application is approved, the funds are released to the city.

Program Open Space funds that could be released to the city have been accumulating since 2007 — the current balance approaches $1.5 million. Schum noted that, per state regulations, these funds can be used to acquire properties or can be split between acquisitions and development projects. 

At a subsequent council meeting, on June 15, the council considered a recommendation that about $868,000 be allocated toward acquisitions and the remaining balance of approximately $590,000 should go toward development. Councilmember Dr. Fazlul Kabir (District 1) suggested that the city could add an additional site, at 4700 Edgewood Road, to the acquisitions list. Councilmember Maria Mackie (District 4) supported Kabir’s suggestion, but it was ultimately voted down. 

At an earlier council meeting, Mackie suggested the conversation around Program Open Space funds should include discussion of the tree canopy. 

“One of the things this council did was make a commitment to increase our tree canopy, and I think some of these properties have the potential of giving us places to plant trees and [attract] pollinators, so I really want to encourage us to maybe buy some of these properties and leave them as wooded lots and leave them environmentally freed. Don’t develop on them,” Mackie said. 

Concerns about canopy loss have increased in recent years, as more trees have been cleared for development projects. According to a presentation given at a forum hosted by the College Park Tree and Landscaping Board, in November 2020, about 37,000 trees were lost in the city between 2009 and 2018, dropping the city’s acreage of tree cover from 44% to 38%. These numbers are derived from a canopy assessment conducted by the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab. 

The council unanimously approved the recommended Program Open Space allocation, which included funding to acquire properties at 5100 Roanoke Place, and 8807 and 8811 Rhode Island Avenue. Funds were also reserved to purchase additional, though as yet unidentified sites, which were designated as Neighborhood Open Space. The allocation would also fund construction of the Hollywood Wellness Trail, improvements to Duvall Field, design and construction of the Sentinel Swamp Sanctuary, and design and construction of the College Park Woods Community Center. 

The city has also been striving, in recent years, to improve the tree canopy. The College Park Department of Public Works (DPW) started the Tree Canopy Enhancement Program (TCEP), in 2018,  to encourage residents to plant trees; through the program, residents are eligible for reimbursement up to $150, annually, for planting approved trees on their property. Applications to the program have increased each year since the program’s inception, and last year the city council approved an increase in TCEP funding for the current fiscal year. 

Tree canopy and forest are considered separate and distinct elements. According to University of Maryland (UMD) professor Alexa Bely, tree canopy is the tree cover across an area, including trees in yards and along streets. Areas like Guilford Woods and the 24-acre parcel on the university’s campus known as the Wooded Hillock, on the other hand, are considered well-established forests.

Bely said that while planting trees adds to a tree canopy, trees in yards or along streets don’t have nearly the environmental impact that a forest has. Established forests are far more efficient at sequestering carbon, and they provide important wildlife habitat. 

“I think where we can preserve actual forest, that’s really critical to do because … we can’t easily replace a forest ecosystem. It takes decades, if not centuries,” Bely said, referring to the proposed graduate student housing project that would deforest roughly nine acres of Guilford Woods.  

Gilbane Development Company has said it will plant 10 acres of new trees, off site, in an effort to offset the deforestation required for the development.

Brad Frome, who is with the Maryland government consulting firm Perry, White, Ross and Jacobson, is consulting with Gilbane on the Western Gateway project; he said that the project in Guilford Woods is smart growth. “There’s a lot of environmental value to the site. … You want to have density by transit, which is what the zoning for this site calls for … you want to put housing next to where people work and shop, because it will reduce the amount of time that people use their cars, and you want to build where you have existing infrastructure within our transit catchment area and not in the far flung exurbs,” he noted.

UMD geographical sciences professor Matthew Hansen pointed to a disconnect between what the university is saying and doing. While promoting the student housing development, UMD also strongly encourages researchers to investigate environmental sustainability. “To say that we’re going to cut down a forest that has 20-some native species, and hawks and woodpeckers and turtles and a wetland, and there’s all this stuff at work – and we’ll plant trees somewhere else. That’s garbage,” Hansen said, 

Residents, city government and the university are continuing to discuss the importance of trees as they push to plant new ones and preserve the old ones that have graced the city for years.