Edgewater contractor gets probation for cutting 70 protected trees

The Capital Gazette, Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2013 9:00

By PAMELA WOOD pwood@capgaznews.com

An Edgewater contractor must do 80 hours of community service and serve a year on probation in connection with an illegal tree cutting operation along the Severn River, state officials said.

Not only did Dennis R. Paddy of Paddy Stump Grinding go too far in trimming trees at his clients’ Severna Park home, he was accused of damaging and cutting trees at two neighboring homes — all with the goal of improving the home’s water view and property value, according to court documents.

A jury in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court found Paddy guilty last week of two charges, clearing without a permit and failure to maintain vegetation. Judge Michele D. Jaklitsch struck the guilty findings and granted Paddy probation before judgement.

Paddy, however, said he's the victim of overzealous prosecution.

Paddy said he had permission from the neighbors to work on their property. He never cut down or "topped" trees. And when he went to the county to get his permits, he was told he didn't need a permit.

"I'm there all the time for permits. I just got railroaded for some reason," Paddy said.

Had he been found guilty of all seven counts he was initially charged with, Paddy could have faced up to $70,000 in fines and more than three years behind bars.

"I was facing three years and three months in jail for something I didn't do," Paddy said. He's rattled by the fact he has to check in for probation alongside violent criminals.

Paddy's public defender, William H. Cooke, is asking the judge to have the community service and probation removed.

In court papers, Cooke said a press release from the Office of the Attorney General wrongly stated Paddy was found guilty. The press release, which has been quoted in news outlets, did not mention the probation before judgement.

Cooke's request said Paddy will have to spend time and effort "rehabilitating his name and business as a direct result of the Attorney General's press release."

The criminal case is one of six court cases spurred by the tree clearing, which took place in 2010 and 2011.

Anne Arundel County officials — who settled a civil case with Paddy and the homeowners — praised the outcome of the criminal case. Criminal charges are still a relatively new tool for prosecutors intent on stopping improper tree clearing in the environmentally sensitive area near the waterfront known as the Critical Area.

“Criminal prosecution of cases as egregious as this one is a necessary component of Critical Area law enforcement,” David A. Plymyer, acting county attorney, said in a statement.

Homeowners Nilos and Kelly Sakellariou also are facing 63 criminal charges each. Their attorney declined to comment because their cases haven’t gone to trial yet.

The case dates back to 2010, when the Sakellarious hired Paddy’s company to trim trees on their property on Bellehahn Court in Severna Park, according to court documents.

The Sakellarious bought the non-waterfront home for $1.75 million in 2005. The neighbors alleged in a lawsuit the Sakellarious hired Paddy’s company to trim and cut down trees “to open up a water view” of the Severn River and “enhance Sakellarious’ property value.”

The neighbors said in their lawsuit that the workers “cut down, over-pruned, topped” and damaged multiple trees on the Sakellarious’ property and two adjoining properties.

The work was done within the Critical Area, a 1,000-foot zone along the shoreline where building and landscaping work is closely regulated and special approvals are required. The Critical Area was established in the mid-1980s, as lawmakers wanted to limit disturbances along the waterfront in order to prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat.

Benjamin Wechsler, an attorney who represented Paddy in the civil cases, said Paddy has made good on the damage. A pair of lawsuits from the neighbors were consolidated and settled out of court.

Paddy had to make “a fairly substantial payment” as part of the settlement, Wechsler said.

Paddy and the Sakellarious also had to pay a $7,500 fine and plant scores of trees as part of a settlement with the county government.

The cost of the tree planting — known legally as “mitigation” — has topped $50,000 worth of work, according to the county.

Severn Riverkeeper Fred Kelly said he welcomes criminal prosecutions in tree-cutting cases.

"It is the only way such blatant, illegal tree removal on the Severn River will stop," he said.

(Revised April 2013)