The priciest real estate in one of the region’s wealthiest enclaves can be a dangerous place to be a tree.
A few years after Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, was penalized for cutting down 130 trees to improve the view from his Potomac estate, one of his high-powered neighbors is coming under fire for clear-cutting nearly an acre of protected land that overlooks the C&O Canal and the Potomac River.
Late last month, Montgomery County issued a $1,000 fine to Robert J. Stevens, the chief executive of Lockheed Martin. Federal park police have opened a criminal investigation into whether the tree-cutting in the Merry-Go-Round Farm community also violated a federal easement designed to protect the canal, the river and scenic vistas.
And environmentalists said they were enraged that another large swath of trees has been cut down.
“This is outrageous,” said Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase. “Once again, people of great wealth feel entitled that they can just end run the permitting process or not get permits.”
Stevens, 61, whose 2011 compensation package totaled $25.3 million, paid the county’s fine and, through his attorney, said he regretted not getting approval and will work to restore the land. After the June 29 derecho, which damaged many of the trees on his property, Stevens hired an arborist and a landscaping company “to remove downed limbs and uprooted trees,” his attorney, Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor, said in a prepared statement.
“He did this to make a very dangerous situation safe, particularly for the people who walk and ride horses on the trails that cross his property,” the statement said. “He did not do this to enhance his view to the canal; he did not have a view of the canal before the storm, and he does not have a view of the canal now. Mr. Stevens regrets that he did not request proper authorization for the actions he took and he willingly paid a fine to the county. He is now working closely with officials to remediate the land and restore its natural beauty.”
Stevens has been head of Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor based in Bethesda, for more than eight years. He is slated to step down in December. His compensation package makes him the second-highest-paid aerospace executive in the nation, according to Forbes magazine. He is the third-highest-paid CEO in the Washington region.
His Merry-Go-Round Farm mansion, assessed at $2.74 million in 2010, is about two miles upstream from Snyder’s estate and sits above the C&O Canal. Like many properties near the 185-mile-long canal and towpath, Stevens’s estate is in a protected, scenic easement overseen by the National Park Service, which generally bars certain landscaping work and tree-cutting without prior approval.
Montgomery’s planning agency also fined the Merry-Go-Round Farm homeowners association $1,000, which the group is contesting, a county official said. County planning officials now say that based on a recent meeting with Stevens, he may be solely responsible for all of the illegal cutting, including on others’ property.
The restrictions in the federal easements are aimed at allowing users of the canal and towpath, a national historic park, to enjoy vistas and scenery next to the park without also having to look at development. Montgomery also holds similarly restrictive easements on many nearby properties. Stevens’s property is covered by both types of easements, officials said.
But now there is a large, barren opening that can be seen from a distance in what is otherwise a densely forested area.
Property owners along the canal are reminded of their obligations inside the scenic easements in an annual letter from the Park Service. Montgomery maintains a publicly available online database with maps that show its protective easements. Both types of easements require landowners to consult with government officials or risk penalties before undertaking major landscaping, tree-cutting or other projects.
Aerial photos show that before the storm, the now-denuded part of Stevens’s property was dense with trees — some as tall as 80 feet and more than 100 years old — including oak, beech and black gum, officials said.
Of the 35,000 square feet that were cleared, 25,000 square feet are on Stevens’s land, and an additional 10,000 square feet appear to be owned by a neighbor and by the homeowners association, said acting county planning director Rose Krasnow. Officials are still calculating how many trees were cut down.
Agency officials met with Stevens on Thursday at his house to try to work out a replanting plan, which he is to submit by Oct. 19. There are no plans to assess additional county fines, Krasnow said.
But Stevens could face stiff federal penalties of up to $1,000 per incident — which could be calculated on a per-tree basis — and a possible one-year prison term, according to federal criminal tree protection laws.
Hedrick Belin, the president of the Potomac Conservancy, which monitors conditions along the river, said the penalties may not be enough of a deterrent — especially for the wealthy.
“The more people see this happening to get a great view, they say, ‘Am I willing to pay X or Y?’ ” he said. “Forest and tree cover is so important when it comes to water quality. We have to do everything we can to protect existing forested areas and do what we can to ensure additional planting of trees, especially along land strips right along the edges of rivers and streams.”
Across the Potomac in Loudoun County is Trump National Golf Club, where workers two years ago chopped down more than 400 trees along the river so golfers could better see the water. The rules in Virginia were not as restrictive as those on the Maryland side of the river, and there was no penalty.
In Snyder’s case, an Interior Department inspector general’s report found that a Park Service employee had helped broker a deal to allow Snyder’s tree-cutting, which substantially improved his view of the canal and the Potomac. But Montgomery’s planning agency, which had not given Snyder a permit, required him to pay $37,000 to a tree bank to purchase and protect three acres in another part of the county. Snyder also agreed to replant the deforested land and put an additional five acres of his property in a protective easement.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.