Four months after Redskins owner Daniel Snyder cut more than two acres of trees on the slope between his Potomac property and the C&O Canal, residents, county officials and lawmakers are scrambling to respond to the event.
In December, workers cut trees on a slope leading down to the C&O Canal behind Snyder’s home on River Road, about one-quarter mile north of Swain’s Lock. The land is protected by a 200-foot federal conservation easement. The tree-cutting was allowed under a deal brokered with the National Park Service, but in violation of county forest conservation laws.
Staff at the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission are close to reaching a deal with Snyder’s representatives that would reportedly include fines, a restoration plan and a new, perpetual easement. Planning Commission legal and development review staff met with Snyder’s representatives April 19.
“I think we’re getting close to resolution at this point,” said development review staff member Cathy Conlon, who was present at the meeting. She declined to comment further.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) has called for a public meeting to allow citizens and county and Park Service officials to discuss the event. A date and specific framework for the meeting have not been set.
THE TREE CUTTING sparked a wide-ranging debate about property rights and resource conservation. The Park Service and groups like the Potomac Conservancy maintain that the existing easements on properties like Snyder’s were weak to begin with and improving them is in the long-term public interest, even if the result is a short-term eyesore.
“[The] easement as we’ve seen repeatedly up and down the river, with the same terms … doesn’t really provide much in the way of scenic protection because it allows tree cutting,” said Matthew Logan, president of the Conservancy. The easement allows cutting of all trees that are six inches or less in diameter at breast height. Larger trees can also be cut with permission from the Park Service, which can be obtained by showing that the tree is damaged or diseased. “You can find disease in almost any tree, I suppose,” Logan said.
In the Snyder case, “The Park Service is trying to make something positive out of a potentially very damaging situation. I think frankly people have to open their eyes and see that what they thought was protected simply doesn’t have the protections that they think they do,” Logan said.
Still, Logan said that the Conservancy’s position on the Snyder controversy has been distorted. He stressed that the Conservancy was not consulted on the tree-cutting and did not participate in any way, and that in comments he made in interviews following the incident were distorted as a staunch defense of the Park Service. In fact, Logan said that the Conservancy understands the motivations for allowing the cutting, but believes that the Park Service faltered in its handling of the situation.
“From the public relations standpoint, [it] was a bad decision on their part. … I think in general there’s a concern with our public land agencies and public servants in general … People are concerned that those who you think are acting in the public interest aren’t. … And when it happens with someone like Dan Snyder, it looks like they’re passing out favors.
“The other issue is there are some county regulations that he violated. I think it’s really important to understand. If you break the law you need to be punished.”
“My point was not that they did the right thing but I understand why,” Logan said.
THE PARK SERVICE deal with Snyder opens the door to other landowners negotiating similar deals. The existing easements were purchased by the Park Service in the 1970s, and many of the current property owners inherited the easement restrictions when they bought their homes, leaving them with little understanding of them or feeling of ownership.
Barbara Brown, Snyder’s immediate neighbor to the south, disagrees with Logan’s argument that the easements are weak.
“I don’t understand why the easement isn’t enforceable. I think that’s something a team of lawyers came up with, because it’s been enforceable up until now,” she said. “It was total news to us that there was no enforcement.”
Brown said she sees the Park Service as the culprit, noting that they had the power to buy the land outright in the 1970s when easements like hers and Snyder’s were negotiated.
The low value of the easements is problematic, Brown said. The then-homeowners on her property were paid $5,500 for the easement in 1976, she said. "And for the value of Potomac land, it was a sneeze. To restrict building here, to restrict logging, to restrict everything,” she said. “That’s the problem; I’m on both sides of the fence here. You know, this is a business thing.”
Brown has not made any effort to renegotiate her easement, but other landowners have inquired about theirs, according to Callum Murray of the Planning Commission.
“I hope that’s the case. … The fact is a lot of these people aren’t aware of the lack of protection and they need to do something about that,” Logan said. The Conservancy has worked with landowners on the Virginia side of the Potomac and on different stretches of the Maryland side.
“Our job is to provide conservation options. And in this country there’s such a strong property rights ethic that it’s very difficult to regulate land in this country. … What we’ve done in some cases is gone and talked to those landowners and said you have weak easements would you like to upgrade those,” Logan said of the Conservancy’s role in easement negotiations in cooperation with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. “That’s been a very positive outcome.”
DOCUMENTS FROM the Park Service reveal a more than three-year exchange between the Park Service and Snyder’s representatives leading up to the tree-cutting last year. Those negotiations began under former Superintendent Doug Faris, who died last year, and continued with current Superintendent Kevin Brandt at the helm.
In November, 2001, Faris denied a request by Snyder to cut diseased trees within the easement, saying that the trees provide critical wildlife habitat. He also denied a request for an easement variance that would have allowed Snyder to build a swimming pool and deck within a portion of the 200-foot easement. In January, 2002, Faris denied a cash offer of $25,000 made by Snyder through then-attorney Grayson Haynes as “mitigation” to the Park Service for the easement variance requests.
The primary agreement that eventually emerged was a six-page “Special Use Permit” signed by Daniel and Tanya Snyder on Nov. 11, 2004 and by Kevin Brand on Nov. 30. The permit outlines allowed cutting, pruning and development activities in 16 conditions.
Park Service officials said they allowed the cutting in exchange for stronger easements, which will forbid future clearing.
The first condition of the permit states that “[The Permittee] shall comply with all applicable laws and regulations of the area” and the fifth condition states that the permit may be revoked upon violation of any of the conditions.
Several letters from the park service to Snyder’s representatives during the three-year period also stressed that any work allowed by the Park Service would still have conform to local laws and requirements.
Snyder’s violation of county requirements resulted in a $1,000 fine issued by Park and Planning in January and leaves the future status of the site in doubt.
A number of local groups have expressed outrage at the Park Service agreement and at least one, the Audubon Naturalist Society, has consulted a lawyer.
And while those groups’ efforts are focused largely on the future of Snyder’s land, they are also informed by a sense that had the Park Service’s dealings been more transparent or allowed public comment, the incident might never have taken place.
“I think there’s a fair bit of consternation that there isn’t a real process in place,” Logan, of the Potomac Conservancy said. “The good that’s come out of this is that a lot of people who deeply care about the river are coming out and expressing that.”