It’s hard to tell whether the battle about Daniel Snyder’s trees is over, or whether it has just begun.
On Sept. 7, the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission announced an agreement — negotiated over several months with Snyder’s representatives — in which Snyder agreed to reforest the 1.3-acre area workers virtually clear-cut on his property last December and place at least seven additional acres of forest into permanent protection.
Snyder must spend at least $37,000 on off-site forest restoration or protection in a county-designated forest conservation bank. He also agreed to a perpetual easement over five acres on his River Road property, the majority of which was not affected by the December cutting.
The agreement fulfills Snyder’s obligations following the issuance of a civil citation Dec. 28, 2004. Had Snyder and Park and Planning not reached a settlement, he would have had to appear before the Montgomery Planning Board for public hearing and faced a fine of up to $55,000 — $1 per square foot—for violation of the Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law.
BUT, AS IN EVERY stage of the Snyder story, which stretches back more than three years, controversy quickly ensued.
In a 5:30 p.m. announcement Sept. 7, Park and Planning proclaimed the “highest fine in [the] organization’s history” and that under the agreement the “Snyders cede most property rights.”
Sitrick and Company, the public relations firm that represents Snyder, shot back with a release that said there were no fines in the agreement and “no ceding of property whatsoever.” It called the $37,000 Snyder is required to spend “a donation.”
“There’s no language whatsoever in there about admission [of wrongdoing], about fines, about anything like that,” said Snyder attorney Wayne Curry in an interview. “I don’t think Mr. Snyder willfully violated the law.”
“We stand by what was in the substance of the press release,” said Nancy Lineman, spokeswoman for Park and Planning. “They are required to pay this monetary amount. They are required to protect additional land. … It’s not a voluntary gift.”
Curry, former Prince George’s County Executive, also said in the statement that the Park and Planning press release was an attempt to appear strong and deflect criticism following the recent Clarksburg controversy. Park and Planning has been investigating breakdowns in its development review process after a citizens group revealed hundreds of building height and setback violations in the new Clarksburg Town Center.
Lineman scoffed at that accusation — investigations into Snyder’s violations started months before Clarksburg came to light, she said.
Workers cut the 1.3 acres of trees on the steep slope between Snyder's River Road home and the C&O last December.
Most of the trees were protected by a federal conservation easement in place since the 1970s, but the National Park Service allowed the cutting in a special use permit negotiated in private with Snyder’s representatives over more than three years. The cutting violated Montgomery County’s forest conservation law, triggering the $1,000 civil citation issued Dec. 28, 2004 and a Planning Commission investigation.
The Planning Commission stated repeatedly in letters to Snyder’s representatives before the cutting that tree clearing permitted by the National Park Service would have to be separately approved by the county.
C&O Canal National Historical Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt has stated in interviews and in writing that Snyder told the Park Service that he had secured that approval.
The U.S. Department of Interior's Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation into possible federal policy violations at the National Park Service in the events leading up to the tree cutting.
West Montgomery County Citizens Association President Ginny Barnes said she was pleased with the added environmental protections set forth in the agreement, but questioned Park and Planning’s decision to negotiate with Snyder rather than forcing him to appear before the Planning board.
“They tried to get a very restrictive easement, which I think they did,” Barnes said. “Having said that though, I really think it was a tactical error not to take this before the board. I think it was too long in coming.”
Barnes said there was no way of knowing whether a public hearing before the Planning Board would have brought about the same result as the private settlement, but the option should have been more closely considered. In a situation where opportunities for public input have been few — and where lack of transparency was partly to blame for allowing the violation to occur — a public hearing would have been meaningful.
Park and Planning staff were apparently divided over whether the Snyder matter should go straight to the Board.
“It would have been better for us to take it to the Planning Board right away, which several staff in here were pressing for,” said Park and Planning Potomac Team Leader Callum Murray. “It would have been the same thing — it would have happened a lot quicker.”
Murray, who was familiar with — but not present for — the negotiations, said that the atmosphere was contentious and that Snyder’s attorneys opposed the easement concessions “tooth and nail.”
“It wasn’t contentious. It was frankly constructive. Everybody acknowledges that there was a problem and it needed to be addressed. … There was a constructive and conscientious effort being made to fix the problem,” Curry said. “It wasn’t acrimonious and hostile until the end here when the surprise press release went out.”
Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan — who, along with Barnes, sits on a task force assembled in June to make recommendations on easements along the canal and prevent future incidents like the Snyder cutting — had sharper words about the agreement.
“Everything that was included was things that either would have been required by the forest conservation act anyway, had they complied with it, or things they had voluntarily agreed to,” he said. “It’s completely false for Park and Planning to be coming out and claiming victory here.”
Logan described the settlement as a lost opportunity to send a strong signal to landowners along the canal that easement violations will be dealt with decisively — and a disappointment because following the civil citation, Park and Planning had the stronger negotiating position.
“It seems like they had some leverage there and they just didn’t use it,” he said. “It’s not meaningful in any way.”
Lacking leadership from agencies like Park and Planning, groups like the Conservancy must be more vigilant as watchdogs for violations like Snyder’s, Logan said.
Lineman found such claims surprising.
“The Snyders cut down a portion of trees on their property, and because of that eight acres are being permanently preserved,” she said. “That should make many of the environmentalists extraordinarily happy.”