Developer plans to cut down trees to protect his allergic children
One thing PA has taught me is to be more open-mined about others' needs for accomodations. This story is testing my limits, though.
Tree-Cutting Proposal Near C& O Canal Spurs Debate
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007; Page A01
A developer wants to cut down a swath of trees where he is building a home overlooking the C&O Canal in Potomac, arguing that the Americans with Disabilities Act gives him the right because his two young children are allergic to nuts on the trees.
The request from Aris Mardirossian -- a self-made millionaire, holder of multiple patents and prominent Montgomery County developer -- goes before county planners tonight.
Mardirossian's plans for a three-acre tract off River Road where he intends to build his dream house have reignited debate over land use along the national 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.
Critics of the project also say a proposed wrought-iron fence surrounding the property would interfere with well-worn animal paths along the canal.
"This would be a bad place to raise children who have an allergy to nuts whether he cuts down some of the trees or not," wrote Rockville residents John and Judy Mathwin to the county planning board. "If this is a serious concern of the owner, he should move. Please do not grant this exception. Should you grant this exception you may find a number of allergies developing among the privileged people living in this area."
The fight has grown so contentious that Mardirossian has twice filed a defamation lawsuit against a prominent civic activist who raised questions about his plans.
Mardirossian, 56, reached by telephone, said he had been advised by his attorneys to refrain from commenting. "The story will come out on Thursday, and it is quite a story," he said, referring to tonight's planning board hearing.
The National Park Service inadvertently granted Mardirossian permission to proceed last year, said Kevin D. Brandt, superintendent of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Brandt said 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 the time frame, the park service essentially approved Mardirossian's plans to cut the trees and build a fence, though the agency did express, in writing, concerns that the proposed location of the house, deck and pool near steep slopes could create harmful runoff.
The park service's action comes two years after the agency 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 the necessary county permits, eventually paid $37,000 in a settlement with the county.
The county Department of Permitting Services, relying on the park service's approval, issued a permit for Mardirossian's fence. It hasn't been built, and plans for the property have been under review by the planning board's staff since August. The agency can reject the plans or seek changes if it finds that the environmental damage would be too great.
Since Mardirossian first proposed the plan last year, he has reduced the number of trees he wants to cut from 55 to 15, said Gus Bauman, one of Mardirossian's attorneys and a former planning board chairman. Bauman said the businessman realized that his children were not allergic to some trees, and he said the case is "much ado about very little. All Mr. Mardirossian wants to do is take down a few small nut-bearing trees to which his children are deathly allergic and erect a fence to protect his kids from wandering into the area where the other nut trees are."
Federal law, which requires accommodations for people with disabilities, has been cited by parents suing school systems to remove peanuts.
But a staff report from the planning department, written by forest conservation program manager Mark Pfefferle, paints a different picture. It said Mardirossian's consultants, Huron Consulting, submitted documents that changed each time they were turned in.
The report said the matter of the nut allergies did not arise until the third submission, which also showed three driveways into the property, rather than one. Pfefferle's report said that the planning board's staff has examined at least five versions of the plans and is looking at a sixth. He is asking the planning board to delay a decision until the staff can review the new document.
The staff rejected the first five plans for various reasons, including concerns that they may not accurately reflect the number, size and location of trees on the site. The report also said that Mardirossian had proposed using a federal park service standard to protect the trees that is less strict than Montgomery County's.
Bauman said the planning staff asked Mardirossian's consultants to alter the way they were measuring the trees, which accounts for some of the changes in the documents.
"There are numerous authoritative ways that one measures the diameter of a tree," he said. "His consultants used accepted methods."
Spurred by the case, County Council members Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) have proposed a bill that would toughen the county's ability to regulate what is built along the canal.
"The park service acknowledged that they dropped the ball," Berliner said. "We are now in a situation of trying to make sure that county law is protecting the park, a national resource."
Mardirossian, who emigrated as a child from Armenia, is developing the 182-acre Crown Farm property in Gaithersburg. He is a vocal presence in county political circles and has donated more than $80,000 to local politicians over the years. He holds patents on an eclectic range of items, including a missile-defense system and a cellphone finder.
He has accused the council of attempting to unfairly block his planned home.
"This should be called the 'Aris Mardirossian law,' " he told council members at a recent hearing on the bill.
But Mardirossian also said he is working with Berliner to find a way to move forward with his plans.
Berliner said Mardirossian is considering "an old-looking fence that would be perfectly consistent with walking down the canal in the 1800s." He also said that he had urged Mardirossian to drop his $2 million defamation lawsuit against civic activist Wayne Goldstein.
Mardirossian's suit is based on a letter Goldstein wrote to him asking about a rumor that the developer planned to cut trees to create a view of the Potomac River from his property.
Mardirossian alleges that the letter was "widely circulated" in the county.
Goldstein's attorney has called the suit frivolous.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.