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College Park takes on the University of Maryland over a hill of trees.

Mike Martin risks nasty cuts and spider bites to show me a barren hilltop situated in the northern section of the University of Maryland, College Park, campus. Until recently, the hilltop was covered with trees, several of which were more than 80 years old. But on this moist evening in late June, there’s nothing left but red earth and a pile of lumber.

“The university started cutting trees from the middle of the hill so no one could see what they were doing,” says Martin. “That they were hiding the fact shows they knew they were doing something wrong.”

Martin, a senior majoring in computer science and electrical engineering, is a member of the university’s Sierra Student Coalition, the student-run arm of the national Sierra Club. He leads me through a tangle of thorny berry bushes on a Tuesday evening to show me what he says was once the largest undisturbed wooded area on campus. Now this hill is slated to hold Farm Road, an access route whose primary purpose will be to connect a new university development to Maryland Route 193, University Boulevard.

Farm Road will lead from the state road directly to a parking garage, which will accommodate visitors to the Comcast Center, the university’s new state-of-the-art athletic facility. When completed in 2002, the sports complex will replace the aging Cole Field House, on the other side of the campus, as the place where Terps fans go to watch basketball.

Martin, however, doesn’t plan on being there to cheer the grand opening. During his freshman year, he says, he would bail from homework and escape into a thick campus forest, including the one where the lumber now lies. “I used to love walking here,” Martin says, surveying the naked mud.

That’s not the only change Martin’s getting used to. Thanks to a big push from Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening and state legislators, the College Park campus is in the midst of its biggest construction boom in 50 years. Expansion plans involve 24 projects, including a new arts center, building upgrades, additional parking spaces, and the Comcast Center. A new greenhouse complex situated on wetlands near the Comcast Center is also in the works.

From George Washington University’s expansion throughout Foggy Bottom to Georgetown University’s student-housing problems, the D.C. area is awash in town vs. gown conflicts. Now the University of Maryland has one, too. The new projects have environmentalists like Martin worried and College Park city officials taking their concerns to the courts.

“The university is destroying a lot for very little,” says Peter King, a member of the College Park City Council. “It suggests the immediate convenience of parking near the arena is more important than the aesthetic environment for the students and longtime residents.”

Though the university launched its expansion boom last year, the fight over it got nasty only this summer. Just weeks before the university started cutting down trees, in mid-June, the Army Corps of Engineers—an agency that, among other things, grants permits to develop wetlands—re-evaluated land set aside for new development on campus and declared 3 acres off limits. The corps’ ruling influenced the university’s decision, announced last week, not to build parking spaces and tennis courts in a wooded area east of the Comcast Center. However, the school still plans to use 6 acres of woods and nearly an acre of wetlands for a new greenhouse complex.

Since the corps’ June wetlands decision, Noah Simon, a city planner for College Park, has been wondering about the ecological impact of deforestation for Farm Road. “The city has supported aspects of Farm Road in the past,” Simon says, “but it was an entirely different situation. [The Army Corps of Engineers ruling] wasn’t available to us then. How could we have made an educated decision or choice?”

On June 20, Elissa Levan, an attorney representing College Park, filed a request in Prince George’s County Circuit Court for a preliminary injunction to prevent the university from deforesting the hill. A judge denied the injunction, but city officials remain skeptical of the development plan.

Like many opponents of big projects, they’re quibbling over process. College Park officials did not receive copies of a May 18 public notice distributed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), says Simon, which alerted the public to the tree-cutting and offered the opportunity to request a hearing to appeal the plan.

That’s not the only piece of information the city is having trouble getting its hands on. The university also filed a state-mandated Forest Conservation Plan to accompany its expansion. Filed with the DNR by the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state entity that will oversee the new university arena, the plan states the university’s agreement to protect 12 acres of forest elsewhere on campus in exchange for the right to deforest 5.5 acres for Farm Road and the parking garage.

But when College Park requested a copy of the university’s full plan from the DNR, DNR officials denied the request until a judge ordered them to hand over the papers.

Despite not getting the public notice, on June 5, Mayor Michael Jacobs and the College Park City Council requested a hearing from the DNR to appeal the university’s conservation plan. One month later, DNR Forest Service Director James Mallow denied their requests. Under state law, property owners aren’t prohibited from cutting down their own trees, said Mallow in a letter.

Charles Sturtz, university vice president for administrative affairs, questions why College Park waited so long to complain about Farm Road. Last year, Jacobs and other city officials sent the university letters indicating that they knew that, sooner or later, the trees would have to go. “Our plan [for Farm Road] was considered the most direct, safest, and most efficient way to manage traffic flow,” Sturtz says.

College Park now wants a three-judge panel to review the Prince George’s County Circuit Court ruling allowing the university to continue deforestation to determine whether the presiding judge acted appropriately.

Even if the university sticks to its promise and plants trees elsewhere, new forests and old forests aren’t the same, Levan says. Some of the trees cut down for Farm Road were “champion trees,” especially large trees singled out for protection under Maryland forest laws.

Although Sturtz describes the greenhouse project as “a low-level, nonintrusive kind of operation,” Martin is angered by what he considers environmentally unfriendly development. Fighting Farm Road has turned him into a budding policy wonk—and against the university. He plans to attend graduate school elsewhere.

“These deals are the result of well-placed people who wanted this new arena,” Martin says, standing where the parking garage for Terps fans will soon appear. “They don’t seem to respect us.” CP