The forest teems with wildlife behind Michael and Lisa Lyston’s home in Abingdon, MD. Over the years, they’ve been visited by foxes, opossums, deer, raccoons, owls and woodpeckers — not to mention turtles, toads and “tons of butterflies.”
“They just come up here and go back home,” Lisa Lyston said. “They know they’re safe here.”
But barring a reprieve from the courts, the neighborhood is destined to become a lot less wild. Most of the woods near their home are to be bulldozed for warehouses, shops, restaurants, a hotel and a gas station.
A developer plans to build Abingdon Business Park on the wooded 326-acre tract, one of the largest patches of forest left in this heavily developed part of Harford County near the head of the Chesapeake Bay.
Opponents say if that happens, it shows how both Harford County and the state government are failing to safeguard Maryland’s shrinking supply of ecologically important forestland. “I feel so bad for all these birds and everything that lives back there,” Lisa Lyston said, choking back tears. “It kills me.”
Nearby residents and environmental advocates have been trying since last year, so far unsuccessfully, to save “Abingdon Woods,” as the tract was once known.
But the property by Interstate 95 has long been zoned for commercial and industrial development. The county even placed it in an “enterprise zone” to encourage economic activity there.
Harford County is still mostly rural. But only about a third of its land is forested, according to data from the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program. Development pressure has been intense along I-95 and, according to the Bay Program, and the county could lose nearly 2,300 acres of woodlands between 2013 and 2025.
“We’ve been opposed to the development on the grounds of loss of forest and wetlands areas so close to the Bay,” said Tracey Waite, president of Harford County Climate Action and head of a coalition opposed to the business park. “Also, in this time of climate change, we don’t believe there should be this level of deforestation in our county.”
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman declined to discuss the project in detail. Instead, he pointed to the efforts his administration has made to preserve about 3,500 acres of farmland – including the recent addition of 347-acre Belle Vue Farm on the Bay between Havre de Grace and Aberdeen.
But Waite contended the county hasn’t put as much money or effort into preserving forest or green space in the southern portion of the county, which she said has a greater proportion of people of color and low-income families. Nearly half of the students attending William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School, which abuts the business park site, are African Americans and nearly 15% are Hispanic, according to Schooldigger.com. Nearly three-fourths are eligible for free lunches because they’re from low-income families.
Bonita Holland-Buchanan, vice president of the African American Democratic Club of Harford County, said she’s concerned about children at the school having to breathe air laced with vehicle exhaust from business park traffic.
Opponents of the business park have gone to court. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and four neighbors of the woods filed suit earlier this year challenging Harford County’s approval of the developer’s forest conservation plan. The Gunpowder Riverkeeper and other neighbors have filed two suits challenging the Maryland Department of the Environment’s permit allowing the developer to build roads across streams and take out some wetlands.
The developer’s plan calls for clearing 220 acres of forest to make way for more than 2 million square feet of warehouses plus other commercial buildings and pavement. The remaining 95 acres of woods would be placed under a protective easement meant to prevent further disturbance. As mitigation for removing so much forest, the county is requiring the developer to plant new trees on 8 acres onsite.
Like most localities in Maryland, Harford’s forest conservation ordinance mirrors the state Forest Conservation Act, which requires counties and municipalities to protect important woodlands from development or have trees replanted onsite or elsewhere. Environmentalists contend the state law isn’t strong enough, in part because the state exercises little oversight of how localities enforce it. Recently, though, a few counties have beefed up their laws beyond what the state requires.
Opponents of the Abingdon project argue that Harford County isn’t even following state law in approving that development. For instance, they note that county officials granted the developer a waiver from the law’s requirement to minimize loss of large “specimen trees,” authorizing cutting down 49 of the 85 largest trees identified in Abingdon Woods.
“It’s just so obscene,” said Jeanna Tillery, another local resident. “I can’t imagine why anybody would think to do something like that, especially in an area like this where we have many warehouses already, many of them unoccupied.”
Jim Lighthizer, managing partner of the Chesapeake Real Estate Group, which is developing the business park, did not respond to requests for comment. In applying for needed permits, the firm said it chose Abingdon Woods for its proximity to I-95 and the Port of Baltimore. While acknowledging there are 18 vacant warehouses in the region, the developer said this is the only suitable site for such a large distribution complex.
County officials declined to answer questions about the project, citing the litigation.
“It is the county’s position that the development approvals for Abingdon Business Park were appropriate,” said Cynthia Mumby, a county spokesperson.
County officials have argued that their approval of the developer’s forest conservation plan is not appealable. A Harford County Circuit Court judge heard arguments on that point in August. A decision is pending.
The MDE permit for stream crossings and wetlands disturbance has drawn fire. Theaux Le Gardeur, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, and residents near the site asked the Harford court to review the permit, which includes permission to bridge Haha Branch, which flows into the Bush River.
The Bush River is already impaired by nutrients and suspended sediments, Le Gardeur pointed out. Plus, he noted, some of the tree clearing would occur near Otter Point Creek, which the state has designated as a high-quality stream. To make up for clearing more than 5 acres of woods there, the MDE has required the developer to plant trees on half that many acres of farmland elsewhere in the watershed.
The MDE has previously bucked local approval of large-scale removal of forests. In 2019, state regulators denied permits for two large solar energy projects in Charles County that together would have cleared 400 acres of privately owned woodlands.
Asked if he’d join other county executives in seeking to strengthen the local forest conservation law, County Executive Glassman said he’s waiting for an update from the state Department of Planning on how much of the county is still forested. “We’ll take a look at those trend lines,” he said, “and see if we need to do anything else.”
By Tim Wheeler