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Protecting the View from the River

Park and planning issues citation to Daniel Snyder after clearing of trees and brush on his property in scenic easement.

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was fined $1,000 last month for cutting trees between his Potomac house and the C&O Canal National Historical Park. While the 100,000 square feet of clearing was in violation of the county forest conservation law, the scenic easements held by the National Park Service along the canal failed to protect the hillsides from clearing.

“I don’t know what we were thinking,” said Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The “we” Brandt is talking about is the National Park Service circa 1971, when it was securing easements from property owners along the canal. Those easements on 190 properties only protect trees that are bigger than six inches in diameter at chest height.

So when workers on Daniel Snyder’s property, about a quarter of a mile west of Swains Lock, began to clear trees and brush not protected by the easement, there was little Brandt could do about it. The clearing was in violation of the county forestation law, but Brandt didn’t know that at the time.

After talking to Snyder’s representatives about some improvements to Snyder’s house, national park officials confirmed the details of the easement. Snyder was adding a ballroom to his house in the 11900 block of River Road; the house sits on more than nine acres and is currently assessed at more than $8.83 million, according to Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records.

Workers on Snyder’s property then “cleared all the vegetation that he wanted to that was six inches or smaller,” Brandt said. “We certainly encouraged them to maintain as much vegetation as possible.”

The results of the clearing were stark, and Brandt said he was struck by the realization that the majority of the vegetation protecting the views from the towpath the length of the canal was vulnerable from a legal standpoint.

“I was surprised by how bare the hillside was when they took out all the six inch and smaller stuff,” Brandt said. “I just cringed when I saw how open the view was.”

It’s not enough for property owners, like Dan Snyder, to adhere to the exact requirements of the scenic easements along the C&O Canal.

“There is an easement there for a purpose,” said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. “It’s about the landowner living up there at the top of the hill acknowledging that this is a national park, and about the enjoyment of the park being directly related to what the view is like from the towpath.”

AFTER THE INITIAL CUTTING, Snyder’s representatives started asking the National Park Service about taking down some bigger trees — trees that were more than six inches in diameter. They identified for the park service which trees they wanted to take down without specifically identifying that they wanted to establish a particular view or vista.

In exchange, they offered to undertake a major replanting in the area they had just cleared. The park service countered that they wanted replanting and a new easement that would establish a no-cut zone so that as the vegetation grows back, it would never be cut again. Snyder and the National Park Service reached an agreement extending the easement and requiring that Snyder control all non-native species on the property from now forward.

In exchange, the park service OK’d the removal of 135 large trees that were “invasive species,” as well as 20 trees bigger than six inches in diameter that were native and desirable species, but that nonetheless were damaged or diseased. The area cleared was about 100,000 square feet, or more than two acres.

What neither the National Park Service nor Snyder took into account was that county regulations also apply to the removal of trees on the property. Any cutting of more than 5,000 square feet of tree cover requires a county permit, even if the cutting is on private property and even if there are no easements.

Documents pertaining to the easement imply that the park service would be responsible for public notification and permits for the land exchange, but Brandt said that was not intended to cover local requirements for the tree removal.

“We advised them that they needed to take care of county requirements and permits,” Brandt said. Verbally, Snyder’s representatives said they would take care of it, he said.

Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission staff issued a citation to Snyder last month for the clearing, and who are reviewing the cutting in order to determine what fines, if any, should be assessed. Snyder was fined $1,000 with additional penalties pending.

“Because there’s an ongoing investigation, we really can’t discuss the matter,” said Marion Joyce of the Planning Commission’s Community Relations division.

Snyder declined through a representative to comment for this story. Sources said that Snyder was surprised by the uproar because he believed he had the blessing of the National Park Service before the clearing proceeded.

A 2002 letter obtained by the Almanac and addressed to Snyder’s then-lawyer Robert Metz specifically forbid any forest clearing not specifically connected to the addition of a ballroom on his River Road.

"From my standpoint, this is egregious, what was done, and I think that the staff and the planning board ought to take this very, very seriously" if there was a violation, said Planning Commissioner Allison Bryant.

“I certainly would not want to give the impression that there is a bias for or against Mr. Snyder,” before the case is presented to the Planning Board, Bryant said. “But if it comes before us, I don’t give a diddly-twink who he is.”

Brandt, head of the national park, said he hopes to meet with county park and planning officials to try to head off this kind of confusion in the future. Perhaps the park service and county officials could require that landowners provide copies of county permits before moving forward with future cases. At least two other Potomac homeowners with land abutting the C&O Canal National Historical Park have made inquiries about clearing trees and brush on their property, Brandt said.

Derick Berlage, chairman of the Planning Board said that he favors close cooperation with other agencies, and that staff will contact the park service to arrange a meeting.

“Thankfully, there is more than one agency involved in enforcement,” said Fitzpatrick.

But over time, the replanting and strengthened easements on the property will be a benefit, said Matthew Logan of the Potomac Conservancy. “In five years, people will see that this is a pretty good outcome.” Logan said he supports the park service solution to create long term protection in exchange for a temporary eye sore.

Planning Commission Potomac Team Leader Callum Murray said that he could not comment specifically on the Snyder case.

However, speaking generally about forest conservation violations, Murray said, “You can’t cut down more than 5,000 square foot of trees anywhere without getting a permit.” Two acres would encompass more than 10 times that area.

There is a 200-foot scenic easement on all private property bordering the canal. The property is subject both to federal regulations imposed by the National Park Service and to county laws, including the forest conservation law and other land-use laws.

In cases of forest conservation law violations, county Park and Planning may impose a civil fine of up to $1,000 and an administrative civil penalty ranging from a mandatory minimum of 30 cents per square foot ($13,068 per acre) up to a maximum of one dollar per square foot ($43,560 per acre). The amount of the fine depends on the assessment of the willfulness of the violation, the damage to trees and water, and other factors. The civil penalty may be imposed in lieu of or in conjunction with required corrective actions, like replanting.

Snyder has already received the $1,000 civil citation.

Snyder is not the first Potomac property owner to run afoul of the county tree ordinances. In April and May, 2002, Ebrahim Kazerouni, the administrator of a property on the corner of Chapel and River roads, was fined more $18,000. There are many other examples.

"EVERYBODY IS FURIOUS," said Barbara Brown, whose property abuts Snyder's. "We’ve been just horrified by this ... He’s created this terrible eyesore that can be seen from the river."

Brown is an avid kayaker and a member of the C&O Canal National Historical Park's volunteer bike patrol. Beyond her frustration with Snyder's actions, she said she places some blame on the park.

"We feel we’ve been betrayed by the park," she said. "They literally betrayed the standards of the park when they allowed this to happen."

What matters now is what happens next, Fitzpatrick said. “Everybody benefits if the easements get better and stronger.”