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A Neighborhood Fights to Preserve an Urban Forest

Andrea Appleton

When you think of forests in Baltimore City, you probably think of public parks. But 20 percent of the city’s tree cover lies in forest patches outside of parks, on land that can be bought, sold, and developed.

And that has landed the residents of Glenham-Belhar in a desperate fight to preserve their neighborhood forest.

Fairwood Forest, as it is known, is a four-acre wood on a ridge off Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. 

Several acres went up for sale early this year. The listing notes the potential for 14 townhouses. No one has purchased the property but a chance encounter a few weeks ago has the neighbors feeling jittery.

“I was taking my recycling out and there were two gentlemen at the end of my driveway,” says Eugenia Argires, whose house backs up to the forest. “And I heard this man say ‘Yes, all of this will be gone, and your house will be there.’ And my throat clutched.”

The forest has a special place in the hearts of its neighbors.

Granted, the groundcover is a snarl of poison ivy and kudzu. But twice a year, migrating birds deem it worthy of a stop. A recent study found an unusual diversity of native trees, including towering white oak and tulip poplar. And local birders say the forest lies along a major hawk migration route.

Daisy Sudano Pellegrini, who lives just across the street, is a certified Master Naturalist and a volunteer at Cylburn Arboretum. She’s a naturalist at her neighborhood forest, too, maintaining paths, pulling invasive plants, and tacking pictures of gnomes to the trees for kids to find.

“Most people have no idea that this forest patch is here,” she says. “They want a little serenity place to walk, there's one right in your backyard, a couple blocks away. You don't have to go all the way up to Gunpowder or whatever. There’s one here.”

Sudano Pellegrini says the forest is home to red fox, opossums, and raccoons, among other wildlife. “We have a Cooper’s hawk that’s been coming almost every other summer to have her young,” she says.

Argires, whose chance encounter alerted the community,  and other neighbors who want to preserve the woods have formed a Facebook group, gone door-to-door, and pleaded for help from city government. City Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents the area, says he can apply pressure but has no real leverage.

“It's a tricky situation,” he says, “because the area is privately owned by multiple people and multiple organizations who own the property, who by the law have the right to develop as long as they're doing that within code.”

So, the neighborhood has enlisted the help of Baltimore Green Space, a nonprofit that helps communities advocate for urban forests. Program Director Katie Lautar says the city has more than 1,000 forest patches. Many exist simply because they’re not easy to develop. They have underground springs, rocky terrain, or steep slopes, for instance.

“The main tool that we have is letting a developer know how hard it is going to be to develop there,” she says. “So informing him about the rocks or how far he’d have to run his sewage line.”

Baltimore Green Space wants the city to do more to protect urban forests. It should freeze sales on city-owned forests, for example. But first the city will have to do some inventory.

“Before we started doing this work, these spaces registered on paper as vacant,” Lautar says.

Local forest conservation laws were drafted in 1992; Baltimore Green Space wants the city to update them to protect smaller forests. The organization is also a land trust. Lautar says they hope to acquire at least a few forest patches in the city over the next couple years.

Even so, the owners of Fairwood and other forest patches like it remain free to develop if they choose. And that is not likely to change, migrating hawks or no.  

Andrea no longer works for On The Record.