By Lubna Takruri
October 6, 2006
A Montgomery County landowner accused of cutting down trees to build a house now owes fines that will total more than he paid for the land.

The Montgomery County Planning Board decided yesterday to fine Anthony Mereos of Silver Spring more than $62,000 plus the cost of restoring the nearly two acres of land cleared of trees in rural Dickerson. According to the county’s report, reforesting the land could cost between $11,000 and $13,000 per acre, adding more than $20,000 to the fine.

“He has no ability to pay it whatsoever,” attorney Shawn Whittaker said of his client, who is a storeroom clerk at a Giant grocery store and has three children.” Right now we’re exploring two options. One is an appeal, one is bankruptcy.” Mr. Mereos was found responsible for the trees despite his contention that he did not cut them down.

The planning board’s report indicates that neighbors came forward with complaints that Mr. Mereos was clearing the land, which he purchased for $65,000 last year.

Mr. Mereos received approval to build a single-family home from the county and oral approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment, according to his attorney. But the county’s Forest Conservation Law requires additional approvals for the clearing of land larger than 40,000 square feet. Mr. Mereos’ land is 83,145 square feet.

Mr. Whittaker said that the county is using his client to set a stern example after some procedural irregularities were found in a tree-clearing case involving Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

Mr. Snyder cut down trees on his estate last year to improve his view of the Potomac River. He paid a $37,000 fine to Montgomery County, or 80 cents per square foot.

Mr. Mereos’ fine breaks down to 75 cents per square foot, plus restoration costs. The money from the fines will go into a forest conservation fund.

Mr. Mereos’ total fine, which is nearly double Mr. Snyder’s, is one of the largest fines in the park and planning department’s history, said Nancy C. Lineman, a spokeswoman for the Planning Board. Mr. Whittaker had tried to reach various settlements with the county, first offering to restore the land then to donate the land to the county if the fine were dropped.

Miss Lineman described the removal of this many trees as environmentally harmful. Forestation helps storm water management, sediment and erosion control and provides canopy and shade.

“When property owners clear trees, it can not only adversely affect their property, but also the properties of those around them,” Miss Lineman said.

This article was published in the Business section of the Maryland Gazette in March, 2005. It cites National Judgment Network, a trade organization for judgment recovery professionals, as the source for much of their research.