Shorter WashPost: How Dare a Rich CEO Cut Down Trees on His Own Property!

October 9th, 2012 12:59 PM

Tuesday's Washington Post devoted Metro section front-page real estate to the story of a Potomac, Md., homeowner clearing trees from his own property, painting the incident as a scandalous affront to the environment and to hikers on the nearby C&O Canal. Yet nowhere in Miranda Spivack's 22-paragraph article was any comment from property rights advocates who would argue that Lockheed Martin CEO Robert Stevens should not have to pay a fine for felling trees on his own property.

From the get-go, readers were treated to a thoroughly one-sided narrative in Spivack's October 9 article headlined "Lockheed CEO cited for tree-cutting." Here's her lead paragraph:

The priciest real estate in one of the region’s wealthiest enclaves can be a dangerous place to be a tree.

Spivack continued with a bit of backstory, invoking some backstory that involves Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins whom many loyal Skins fans love to hate:

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.

Spivack then returned to the actual fresh controversy at hand, quickly turning to environmental activists who are appalled at Stevens:

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.”

At this point, Spivack then went to great detail to note how wealthy Stevens is and how much his property is valued at, all while noting that Stevens has apologized for clearing trees without a permit from the necessary federal and local authorities:

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.

And why, exactly, is a federal easement in effect? Essentially to ensure that hikers and cyclists along the nearby C&O Canal tow-path have pretty scenery to look at:

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.

Although Stevens has apologized and is working with authorities on a plan to re-plant felled trees, that's not enough for environmentalist zealots who suggest he and other wealthy landowners get off easy when they transgress easement restrictions:

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.”

This isn't the first time that the Post has offered prime real estate to attacking a local property owner for, well, handling his or her own property the way they see fit. As I noted in April of this year, Post staffer Justin Jouvenal mocked a Great Falls, Va., property owner for the plans she had to build a mansion on her lot.