Defying the pleas of two lobbyists, a city councilman and an educator, the Baltimore Planning Commission imposed a $182,400 fee on Mercy High School for cutting down more than 100 trees to make way for a new athletic stadium.
The 3-2 decision appeared to leave Mercy President Mary Beth Lennon, who repeatedly asked the commission for leniency at yesterday’s hearing, in shock.
“I’m the lady who is going to have to raise the $182,000,” she said, noting that one of the high school’s three “critical concerns” was the environment.
“I don’t want this [controversy] on my performance review. . . Whatever you can do for us, I would really appreciate that.”
After the hearing, Lennon refused to clarify whether the Catholic girl’s school would actually pay the fee – or if the cost would be borne by the school’s consultants who had failed to submit the required forest conservation plan.
“I don’t have that [information] with me,” she said before huddling with Century Engineering and other advisors in a side conference room.
During the hearing, Mercy’s lawyer, Ryan J. Potter, described the tree-cutting last February and March – which has left a sprawling dirt pile next to Northern Parkway near Loch Raven Boulevard – “a terribly unfortunate situation.”
But, he asserted, Mercy “had its heart in the right place” and wasn’t at fault. “They hired experts and had no idea any of this was occurring. So I’m hopeful we can come to some creative solution,” Potter told the panel.
“I wouldn’t think this is Mercy’s responsibility,” responded Sean D. Davis, the commission chairman.
“I don’t disagree with you,” Potter answered.
At issue was another convoluted story of botched regulatory oversight reminiscent of last week’s tear down of historic houses in Woodberry.
But yesterday’s decision amounted to a much different ending than in the case of pristine forestland cleared for a BGE pipeline in Leakin Park (here) or the trees chopped down at Hanlon Park for future underground water tanks (here).
Mercy High’s plan for a five-acre athletic field on its campus in northeast Baltimore required the leveling and re-grading of a wooded hillside on the sprawling campus.
That, in turn, required the school to submit a plan under the 1991 Maryland Forest Conservation Act to either retain or replace trees at the site.
“They had no idea any of this was occurring. So I’m hopeful we can come to some creative solution.” – lawyer for Mercy High School.
City Planner Amy Gilder-Busatti said Century Engineering, acting on Mercy’s behalf, sought her guidance as early as May 2018 on how to submit the conservation plan.
The plan, however, was not submitted until February 2019 – after Mercy’s architect, Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson (JMT), applied for and received construction permits from the Department of Housing and Community Development to cut down the trees and prepare the site.
On February 28, the planning office learned of the tree-cutting, but, crucially, did not request a stop-work order from HCD.
The reason: it “believed the consultant would act in good faith and only continue site demolition activities that would not impact existing trees,” says a May 24 memo submitted to the panel.
Despite “multiple points of correspondence” between the planning department and Century Engineering, “tree clearing continued for five more days,” by which time a total of 57 large specimen trees, mostly northern red oak and white oak, together with 50 smaller trees, were cut down.
Asking for Mercy
The $182,000 fee would pay for the tree loss that would not be compensated by new plantings elsewhere on the campus.
Al Barry, owner of AB Associates who represented Mercy and Century Engineering, argued that the planning department had received a copy of the construction permit and should have known the trees “were coming down.”
He urged the commission to “look at the big picture” and called the fee “unnecessarily punitive for an anchor institution in Baltimore City that has invested $4 million in an educational facility.”
In return for the city showing “some mercy,” Barry said the school recently submitted plans to plant 100 more trees on the campus.
In return for the city showing “some mercy,” Barry said the school submitted plans to plant 100 more trees.
Even with the promised plantings, a deficit of 912 inches of tree canopy would remain, which was the basis for the $182,000 fee, Gilder-Busatti said.
What’s more, it will take decades for the new plantings to reach the size of the 57 specimen trees removed during construction, City Arborist Erik Dihle said.
“They Knew What They Had To Do”
Also weighing in on the issue was 4th District Councilman Bill Henry.
“If Mercy is the one stuck footing the bill for this, it won’t help things,” Henry said, arguing that planning regulations are designed to penalize “developers who are insensitive to the city,” not to hurt a charitable institution like Mercy.
“I would break Mercy out of this conversation,” he continued, “and have an arrangement between the city and Century Engineering for doing whatever level of mitigation can be agreed upon to try to get us closer to the forest conservation laws.”
“We are not involved with people inexperienced in the process.” – Commissioner Marcia Collins.
The councilman’s suggestion was cast aside by the commission. After 75 minutes of testimony, Marcia Collins, who represents the Department of Public Works, argued that the tree removal was a clear violation of the law.
“We are not involved with people inexperienced in the process,” she continued. “They [Century and JMT] have fulfilled the law in the past in other projects. They knew what they had to do regarding the forest conservation plan. I cannot worry, with all due respect, about Mercy High School.”
Marianne Navarro, the mayor’s representative on the board, concurred.
“Some solid project management could have prevented this,” she said. Mercy’s goal to open the athletic facility by August 2019 “was maybe driving the pace of this project,” she added.
Together with attorney Thomas Prevas, Collins and Navarro cast the deciding three votes. Voting against imposing the $182,000 fee was board chairman Davis and Davon Barbour.
The commission stopped short of ordering any temporary halt to construction. Building the sports field can proceed on Mercy’s schedule.