No one is quite sure how old the 100-foot-tall white ash at 12925 Circle Drive is, but it is likely that the tree was standing in the same spot when Benjamin Franklin and John Adams signed the Declaration of Independence.
The 61-inch diameter tree near Glen Mill Road is neither as old nor as large as the famous Travilah Oak, but it’s still one of the largest trees in the county, and community members are furious about a development plan that calls for taking it down.
REAL ESTATE developer Kevin Smart, a Circle Drive resident and president of Premiere Homes, has applied to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission to amend a forest conservation plan that includes a conservation easement protecting the tree.
The tree stands within a few feet of a small white house — itself constructed in 1900 — on the rear portion of the 12925 Circle Drive lot.
In 1998, Smart subdivided the lot and added a larger, more modern house closer to Circle Drive. As part of Park and Planning’s development review, Smart agreed to a forest conservation plan that included a category II conservation easement over the tree. The easement prevents excavation, grading, cutting or new construction that would affect the tree without approval from Park and Planning and stands “in perpetuity … running with the title of the land.”
But now Smart wants to tear down the white house on the rear portion of the lot and build a new single-family home there, according to a Dec. 17, 2004 forest conservation plan exemption filing to Park and Planning. At that time, the development plans called for protecting the ancient ash.
He reversed that plan in filings last month that stated that construction of a new single-family home would disturb 75 percent of the ash’s critical root zone, making it impossible to save. The plan proposed planting approximately 167 one-inch trees on just less than an acre off-site to compensate for taking down the big, old tree.
The amendment request is slated to go before the Planning Board at the end of September or beginning of October.
Smart has applied for demolition and construction permits from the Department of Permitting Services. If the forest conservation amendments are approved, he would not need a site plan review to construct a new home on the lot.
NEIGHBORS, TREE enthusiasts and other activists have cried foul, balking at the idea that Park and Planning would even consider lifting a permanent easement to allow construction.
“How is it that such an agreement can be broken so easily? Isn't it the expressed purpose of such agreements to provide protection against harmful development?” wrote John Parrish, vice president of the Maryland Native Plant Society in a July 31 letter to Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage.
“There seems to be no basis for amending the forest conservation plan,” said Susanne Lee, an attorney and Circle Drive resident.
“It was clear from the beginning what he was permitted to do,” she said referring to the terms of Smart’s 1998 subdivision. Lee said that an easement that only applies when it is not needed is meaningless and that failing to enforce the terms of the easement would be a violation of the public trust. She called the proposed amendment “a real test of what standards the Planning Board is going to be applying.”
Some digging, apparently around the existing house’s septic tank, has already taken place at the site, which Parrish said in another letter to Berlage might be a violation of the standing easement.
Arborist Doug Sievers examined the tree in December, 2004. His firm, Macris, Hendricks and Glascock are the landscape architects hired by Smart to assist in the forest conservation plans.
Sievers wrote an arborist’s report at that time that said the tree was in moderate health and called for measures to protect it.
But complications related to the existing and proposed septic systems have made saving the tree impossible, Sievers said in an interview.
AS A RULE of thumb, it is difficult to save a tree when more than 30 percent of the root zone would be affected. Before becoming aware of the septic issues the construction plans would have disrupted roughly that amount, but Sievers and Smart had made plans to preserve the tree, including using a commercial growth inhibitor, “Cambistat,” that fortifies aging trees.
In light of the septic issues, the proposed construction on Circle Drive would disturb 75 percent of the root zone.
“It’s up there as a big tree, that’s for sure, and everyone recognized that, including Kevin Smart. He wanted to save the tree if possible and doesn’t feel good about having to take it out,” Sievers said, but “I don’t really see anything short of bringing pipe sewer to the area” that could resolve the septic issues and save the tree.
Sieves will write a revised report that recommends removal of the tree.
That report will likely be part of the case Smart brings before the Planning Board, but the fact that the proposed construction would require removal is unlikely to answer citizen concerns about why that construction should be allowed at all.
Smart could not be reached for comment on the issue. A receptionist at his office said he is on vacation until September and refused to direct calls to another member of his staff.
“It’s not anything that’s unheard of to abandon an easement and put a new one somewhere else,” Sievers said in response to those concerns. “I think it would amount to a taking of the property if Park and Planning disallowed the abandoning of the easement.”
Sievers said that seeing the tree removed does affect him personally, but said, “I can’t get too emotional about it. I’ve got to stay objective. The tree has provided shade and been enjoyed by whoever’s lived there for a long time. I think it could be argued that it’s near the end of its life span.”