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Missing the permit for the trees: Congressional Country Club cited for tree removal

Golfers practice on the 18th green of the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. The club received a notice of violation from Montgomery County officials after the county said it cut down more than 20,000 square feet of tree canopy on its property.
Golfers practice on the 18th green of the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. The club received a notice of violation from Montgomery County officials after the county said it cut down more than 20,000 square feet of tree canopy on its property. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Bethesda’s tony Congressional Country Club, known for hosting high-profile golf tournaments such as the U.S. Open, recently was visited by some other, perhaps less welcome, guests: Montgomery County inspectors, who cited the club for denuding its picturesque fairways of shade trees without acquiring the proper permit.

Large properties such as the country club are required to obtain a sediment-control permit from Maryland’s most populous county if they clear more than 5,000 square feet of tree canopy. The club, located at 8500 River Road, chopped down more than four times that amount without securing permission, according to county officials.

After inspecting the grounds and comparing aerial photos with photos received as part of a complaint, authorities said the club appears to have removed roughly half an acre of tree cover in recent months — possibly in preparation for hosting several high-profile tournaments in coming years, including the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.

A club member, who triggered the investigation by tipping off a local environmental group, estimated that 1,000 trees were taken down on the 358-acre property. The member thinks it happened in the colder winter months, when the courses are less utilized.

“I am [upset] because they’re ruining my club,” said the member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from club officials, but added that dozens of fellow clubgoers are also concerned.

“I think they don’t want members to fuss,” the person said. “I think it [was] also quietly done so it didn’t draw attention from the county.”

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The Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services emailed a notice of violation to a country club official on Sept. 26, accusing the club of the “removal of over 20,000 sq. ft. of tree canopy.” The notice says the department is requiring the club to get a sediment control permit.

Jeffrey Kreafle, general manager of Congressional Country Club, said in an email Friday that the club is working on securing the permit.

“Congressional has selectively removed trees for the conditioning of our golf courses,” he wrote. “We have not received a stop work order from Montgomery County. Rather, they notified the Club that we need to obtain a sediment control permit for work being done on the golf course. The paperwork for this requested permit is in process.”

Kreafle added that the club had operated “under the sediment control guidelines of Montgomery County throughout this process.”

Helen Wood, a board member of the environmental nonprofit organization Conservation Montgomery, made the complaint to the county after being tipped off by the club member. She said she’s hoping to see some “serious remediation.”

“We all have a stake, really, in their trees,” said Wood, who lives in Bethesda. “By regulation, they have a plan that’s approved that allows them to have their beautiful golf course, their lovely grounds. But they have, if nothing else, a civic responsibility to fulfill their conservation role in the county. And that’s a legal responsibility.”

Stephen Peck, a forest conservation inspector with the planning department who visited Sept. 26 after receiving the complaint, said much of the area where canopy was missing had been replanted with grass, which does not always grow well in the shade.

Congressional Country Club’s Forest and Tree Management Plan, updated with the county planning department in January 2013, describes the ­conundrum:

“Turf grass and trees, however, do not always co-exist well in nature since they compete for the same nutrients, sunlight and water needed to sustain their health and vigor,” the document states. “Therefore, care must be taken through best management practices to provide for the health of both trees and turf.”

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Based on the photos and his inspection, Peck estimated that the trees were removed between about April and September, mostly near the club’s famed Blue Course — which is reportedly slated to be renovated next year.

Richard Weaver, chief of the Area 3 planning team for the Montgomery County Planning Department, said none of the removed trees had been in areas that are protected for environmental reasons from clearing, grading or removal. He said his agency has asked the club to stop removing trees for the time being and submit an amended forest conservation plan that includes the areas where the trees were cut down.

“While it is not illegal to remove individual trees on the site . . . the Congressional Country Club was obliged to call us before trees were removed,” Weaver said. “They failed to do that.”

Peck said he plans to reinspect the site once the club submits its new forest plan.

“It’s an active case,” he said “We’ve got to see this plan when it comes in. We’ve got to compare the plan again out on the ground. It’s not resolved.”