A Severna Park man has been charged with illegally removing trees from his and neighboring community property along the Severn River, in what officials say is the first criminal prosecution for alleged violations of laws regulating shoreline development.
William E. Clark, 73, of the 200 block of Lennox Ave. was charged in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court with six violations of state and county laws, all misdemeanors, with penalties ranging from a $500 fine up to 18 months in jail.
The charges stem from tree removal in May 2010 in which, according to the charges filed by the Maryland attorney general's office, Clark cut trees near the river, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis.
He was charged with failure to obtain required permits for tree removal and for clearing vegetation near the water and for not having a plan for keeping keep soil on the cleared land from eroding into the river. Clark was also charged with malicious destruction of property and theft for cutting one or more trees on land owned by the Olde Severna Park Improvement Association.
Clark's lawyer, Anthony Gorski, called the charges inappropriate and said he would vigorously defend his client.
Environmental activists hailed the prosecution, saying that too often waterfront property owners get by with only having to pay relatively small fines for removing trees and brush blocking their view of the water.
"It's long overdue," said Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper. Kelly said that until now, he and other activists had been unable to persuade officials to prosecute violators of the 1984 state law that regulates shoreline development. The critical area law, as it's known, limits building within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries, and it restricts disturbance of natural vegetation within a narrow "buffer" strip of land immediately bordering the water.
State and county officials have filed civil suits in the past against landowners for building on or clearing waterfront land, but such cases often are resolved with fines of $1,000 or less.
Jonathan Hodgson, Anne Arundel's county attorney, said that often when facing only civil complaints, "property owners do the calculation and decide the improvement to their view of the river is worth the expense" of paying a fine and possibly also replanting trees. "We hope this new approach changes the calculation."
The O'Malley administration spearheaded an overhaul of the law in 2008, adding a provision allowing local and state officials to bring a criminal prosecution. The charges against Clark represent the first use of the new authority.
The case against Clark was referred by Anne Arundel officials to the state Critical Area Commission, which oversees shoreline development around the Chesapeake and along the Atlantic coastal bays. The commission asked Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to consider prosecuting it.
"This case was singled out because of its magnitude, which we believe merits this greater treatment," said Hodgson. He declined to comment further or to provide details about the case, since it has yet to be heard in court.
Clark's property is near Sullivan Cove, which the Severn Riverkeeper described as a relatively pristine area and the last refuge of river otters on the Severn.
But Gorski accused officials of overkill and said criminal charges were "inappropriate" in this case. Clark had hired a contractor to clear up debris along the riverbank left by the 2010 snowstorms, Gorski said. The lawyer said his client contends he never told the contractor to cut the trees in question.
"The state's position is that this 73-year-old man should be prosecuted for a mistake a contractor made," Gorski said. "This is a fellow who has lived in this neighborhood, in this house, since the early 1970s." Clark maintained his yard in native plants, the lawyer added, and had not done extensive tree cutting.