By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007
The Montgomery County Planning Board voted last night to reject a prominent developer's plans to cut down trees near the C&O Canal that might affect his allergic children.
Aris Mardirossian, who wants to build a house on a three-acre tract near the canal, said he will go to court to challenge the 5 to 0 ruling.
"It will be good to go to court," he said. "This will be good for Montgomery County, so that everybody will understand."
Mardirossian, 56, contended that the Americans with Disabilities Act gives him the right to cut the trees because his two young children are allergic to the nuts of hickory and walnut trees. Before the vote, he acknowledged that he did not check the property before he bought it to see whether it had nut trees.
"My disabled children who have a nut allergy have every right to live anywhere they want," he told the Planning Board before the vote at a hearing last night.
In a sometimes emotional appearance before the board, Mardirossian said that there was "a political payback" in which a planning staffer and County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) were conspiring to deny him his property rights. Elrich has expressed concerns about Mardirossian's plans.
"I have a right to enjoy the property that I own," Mardirossian told the board. "We love the trees. We love the environment."
Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson denied any conspiracy.
"I simply don't understand what you are talking about," Hanson said.
The Planning Board has jurisdiction in the case because it involves trees on a tract large enough that a local forest preservation law comes into play. The planning agency can reject the plans or seek changes if it thinks the environmental damage from cutting down the trees would be too great.
Mardirossian's plans for the property off River Road have reignited debate over land use along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, two years after a controversy over trees that were cut down on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's nearby property.
Many local residents are opposed, saying the park's ecosystem should not be altered for the allergies of Mardirossian's children, who are 6 and 7.
At last night's hearing, Dolores Milmoe, a lobbyist for the Audubon Naturalist Society, called Mardirossian's decision to buy the land "a self-imposed hardship." She said he had to know that he was buying property in an area that was subject to the county's forest-protection rules and was near a historic site.
Initially, Mardirossian asked to cut down 55 trees but recently reduced the number to 15, saying the children are allergic to fewer trees than initially thought. He also asked for the right to remove any hickory or walnut trees that might later take root.
Mardirossian has also proposed erecting a wrought-iron fence around the property to protect his children from wandering into areas where they might be exposed to nuts.
Critics have said the fence would interfere with well-worn animal paths along the canal. The National Park Service has given Mardirossian permission to proceed, but the county's planning agency has jurisdiction over land near the park. The county has a stricter standard for environmental protection near the canal than the Park Service.
The Park Service inadvertently granted Mardirossian permission last year to proceed, said Kevin D. Brandt, superintendent of the park, which runs from Georgetown to Cumberland in Western Maryland.
Brandt said in an interview before the hearing that the agency had been negotiating with Mardirossian and did not realize that his engineer, Huron Consulting, had submitted a letter that formally started a 30-day clock.
By failing to reply in 30 days, the Park Service essentially approved Mardirossian's plans to cut the trees and build a fence near the property's boundary with the national park. The agency had said in a letter to Mardirossian that the proposed location of the house, a deck and pool near steep slopes could create harmful runoff.
Based on the Park Service's action, the Montgomery Department of Permitting Services has issued a permit for the fence, which has not been built.
Two years ago, the Park Service was criticized by the Interior Department's inspector general for allowing Snyder to cut down more than 130 trees in 2004. The Redskins owner, who failed to get county approval, eventually paid $37,000 in a settlement with the county.