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Environment: Homeowner, spare that live oak

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Still smarting from a rebuff by County Council over tree regulations, the Georgetown County Planning Commission last week recommended the county require homeowners to get a permit before cutting large live oaks on their property.

That decision chips away at an exemption for occupied residential property adopted by the council in 2010. It came in response to an outcry from Waccamaw Neck residents over the cutting of an oak tree at a Murrells Inlet home in October.

The permit requirement for live oaks is part of a Waccamaw Neck Tree Protection Overlay Zone that would be created within the county zoning ordinance. There is a similar zone that sets architectural standards for commercial development in the Highway 17 corridor on Waccamaw Neck.

The current tree regulations for commercial property and residential developments would still apply county-wide. The exemption for occupied residential property would also remain for property west of the Waccamaw River.

The measure passed by the commission requires a permit to cut live oaks with a diameter 30 inches or greater. The planning staff recommended 32 inches, based on their sense of what County Council would approve, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

“We have an idea where they stand on tree protection,” he said. “We felt like this was something that was addressable, rather than getting into other issues like cypress trees.”

Speakers at a public hearing last week recommended setting the threshold at 24 inches. Others recommended protections for a wider range of hardwoods and want to extend those protections county-wide.

Leon Rice, a Murrells Inlet resident, said the city of Conway protects live oaks with trunks 8 inches in diameter. “We’re behind the curve,” he said.

He noted that most of the trees in the Georgetown historic district are under 32 inches in diameter. “The ones that need protecting are the ones down to 24 inches,” he said.

Amy Armstrong, head of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, showed the commission a series of photos with a tape measure held up to the trunk of towering oaks, none of which met the 32-inch threshold.

Commission member Larry Fox suggested Armstrong show the photos to County Council, when the tree protection zone comes up for the next round of approvals.

“I’m not suggesting we go down to 8 inches,” Armstrong said, but added that live oaks above 32 inches aren’t very common.

Bill Chandler, who first raised concerns about cutting the live oak in Murrells Inlet, said the oaks at his creekfront home withstood the great storm of 1893, Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989. “That tree in Murrells Inlet couldn’t withstand a chainsaw,” he said.

The cut tree was closer to 48 inches in diameter, he told the commission.

In order to avoid a repeat of that incident, the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations supports the live oak permits, said Bill Renault, a council board member.

John Bracken told the commission the local Sierra Club chapter also supports the new rule. “What’s really at stake in this issue is the protection of all trees, including live oaks, that lead to the protection of our environment,” he said.

Nancy Cave, director of the local office of the Coastal Conservation League, said protection should be extended to other hardwoods on occupied residential lots and that they should apply throughout the county.

Commission member Glenda Shoulette, who lives in Litchfield Country Club, said she was reluctant to alter the staff recommendation and risk another rebuff from County Council. “This is a start. It’s better than what we have,” she said.

If residents elsewhere in the county want additional tree protection, they can lobby their council members.

Commission members who live outside the Waccamaw Neck agreed the live oak protection is needed. “It’s important to save the live oak,” commission member Amy McFadden said.

“Trees are important to all of us,” commission member Norma Grant said.

They both said the reasons for permitting a tree to be cut are important. The proposed overlay zone allows trees that are dead, diseased or a threat to life or property to be cut.

Commission chairman Brian Henry, who lives at Pawleys Island, said he was surprised no one spoke against the overlay zone as an intrusion on property rights.

“The way this ordinance is written, if you have a bona fide need to remove a live oak, of any size, you can get a permit. And your right to remove that tree is still being upheld,” he said.

While he thought the rollback of the residential exemption to the tree rules represented a reasonable compromise, Henry questioned the 32-inch threshold.

So did commission member Marvin Neal, who lives in Plantersville. He said 8 or 16 inches sounded like a better idea.

“Twenty-four is still a very large tree,” commission member Larry Fox of Georgetown said. “With the political climate, it’s going to be tough. Of course, the political climate can change with grassroots pressure.”

Shoulette noted that a 30-inch limit was the one that existed before council created the residential exemption. “It can always be revisited,” she said.

Her motion to approve the zone with the lower limit passed unanimously.

Council will take up the change in January.

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