Unlike a National Football League game, everyone was able to claim victory -- except, of course, the trees.
One day after the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission announced that it had reached a settlement with Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder and his wife, Tanya, over removal of 130 mature trees from his Potomac riverfront estate, environmental leaders said serious flaws exist in county efforts to protect slowly dwindling forests.
Because he failed to get the proper local permits before chopping the trees last fall, Snyder agreed to pay the county $37,000 so it can purchase and protect three acres in another area of the county. He also agreed to give up his development rights on nearly five acres he owns between his estate and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
The result is an agreement that allows Snyder to claim that he is making a donation of $37,000 to the county as well as a separate donation of five acres that he promises to protect forever.
In exchange, Snyder keeps an enhanced view of the Potomac River that some real estate brokers say could add more than a half-million dollars to the value of his home. He is also spared a potentially embarrassing public hearing on the matter.
County planning officials, meanwhile, used the settlement to celebrate what they see as their dogged enforcement of the county's forest conservation law.
"Park and Planning Commission Issues Citation to Snyders for Forest Conservation Law Violation; Issues Highest Fine in Organization's History; Snyders Cede Most Property Rights," screamed a news release.
Beneath the muscular claims, however, many environmental and community leaders said, the reality is that the county held little leverage over Snyder.
"I have a hard time seeing how this is a major victory for the protection of the C&O Canal and Montgomery County's forests," said Matthew Logan, executive director of the Potomac Conservancy.
"Thirty-seven thousand dollars is simply not a deterrent to most folks who live along the river there. Given the amount you have to pay to live along the property, that is truly a drop in the bucket," he said.
Planning officials say their options were limited, which is one reason they decided to negotiate with Snyder instead of bringing him before the Montgomery County Planning Board.
"The overall remedy might be to consider strengthening the forest conservation law," said Nancy C. Lineman, a spokesman for the park and planning commission as well as the county Planning Board, which is a component of the commission. "But within the parameters of what the commission could do, we feel like we got the best result."
Since 1992, Montgomery County has had a law that requires landowners to obtain the Planning Board's permission before clearing more than 5,000 square feet of forested land.
But the penalties for violating that law -- up to $1 per square foot of deforested land -- have not been increased since the law went into effect.
"In these times, that's peanuts," said Ginny Barnes, environmental chairman of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.
The result, environmental leaders say, is a toothless law that does little to deter wealthy landowners, particularly those who live along the environmentally sensitive Potomac.
Last fall, Snyder failed to get county approval before he cleared 55,000 square feet of protected land that separates his estate near Potomac from the canal.
He obtained the approval of National Park Service officials, who now face an Interior Department inspector general's inquiry about the propriety of the arrangement.
Snyder's representatives say they thought the federal government would notify the county of his plans to cut the trees.
In 2000, Snyder did get permission from the county Planning Board to clear 10,000 square feet of forested land so he could construct a ballroom, Lineman said.
But as far back as 2002, county officials were telling Snyder it was unlikely that he would be granted approval to remove the 55 square feet of trees -- most of which were nonnative species or diseased -- on his property.