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Votes

Council Set to Vote on Cutting Penalties

Task Force proposes increased fines, jail time for violators.

When the County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee met Dec. 1, the only animosity most Washingtonians felt towards Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was because the team had imploded for fourth-quarter losses in each of its last three games.

NEARLY A YEAR after Snyder sparked public outrage by clear-cutting more than an acre of trees on the slope behind his Potomac home, the debacle — revelations of secret negotiations with the National Park Service and botched inter-agency communication — the committee was meeting to make sure that only the Redskins are allowed to make the same mistakes again and again.

The committee voted unanimously to advance a proposed bill that will repeal the current maximum fine for unauthorized tree-cutting under the Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law, making room for much stiffer penalties. Under the most likely proposal, fines would increase three- to nine-fold and willful violators could spend six months in jail.

The full council was slated to consider the repeal measure and the proposals and the new penalties Dec. 6 and vote on the measures Dec. 13.

On Sept. 20, five councilmembers joined lead sponsor Steve Silverman (D-At Large) in introducing expedited bill 27-05, which would repeal the current maximum civil penalty of $1 per square foot ($42,000 per acre) for illegally cleared land.

But the substantive changes came from the C&O Canal Stewardship Task Force, convened in June by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) to examine ways to address the issues raised by the Snyder cutting.

“[The committee] accepted the whole package of recommendations from the task force,” said Ginny Barnes, president of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, who sat on the task force. “There are some little details to be worked out. … but it sounded pretty good. I’m pretty tickled.”

Under current law the Planning Board and courts can impose three sanctions on forest conservation law violators: a class A civil fine of up to $1,000, which can be repeated daily in case of an ongoing violation that is not corrected; an administrative civil penalty of 30 cents — $1 per square foot of cleared land; and a corrective plan that forces the violator to pay to reforest an area of land equal to the area that was cut. When reforestation is not possible, the violator must pay an “in-lieu” fee of 30 cents per square foot.

THE TASK FORCE proposed the following changes:

* Set the administrative civil penalty to a new range of $3-$9 per square foot, depending on the severity of the violation.

* Triple the “in-lieu” fee to 90 cents per square foot to reflect the actual cost of reforestation, which has increased greatly since 1992, when the original law was written.

* Require an additional payment to cover the cost of placing an easement on the newly-planted forest, which is estimated to cost $8,000-$12,000 per acre in surveying, engineering, and legal fees.

* Expand the criteria that the Planning Board is required to consider in determining the amount of the penalty. Currently, the Board must consider the willfulness of the violation and the environmental damage. The proposal expands those criteria to include the economic benefit that a violator may have reaped from the cutting (real estate agents estimated Snyder might have increased the value of his home by [[[[[[[$500,000]]]]]] by improving the view of the river). The Board is also asked to consider the violator’s ability to pay the fines.

* Allow criminal penalties of up to $1,000 per day of violation and six months in prison for “knowing and willful” violators.

The task force’s main objective in the proposed changes was simple, said Meredith Lathbury, general counsel for the Potomac Conservancy and a task force member.

“Our ultimate goal was that ultimately the public has to be convinced that the violator is going to be put in a worse position than someone who has complied with the law,” she said.

While that may seem obvious, critics said it was not the case when a landowner could increase his property value by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and pay only a few thousand in fines.

The task force modeled many of its proposals off of penalty provisions in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act.

Lathbury said the council deserves credit for its dedication to the forest conservation issue long after it faded from prominence.

“Fortunately the political will is there,” she said. “This is the silver lining of a really unfortunate situation. It offended the community deeply what happened and this is a way to try to fix that.”

She wasn’t talking about the Redskins.