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Policy change grows slowly

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Revisions to the rules intended to help preserve trees during land development have taken longer than expected, but those watching the process say the Georgetown County Planning Commission is on the right path.

“I think they’re doing a good job,” said Bob Schuhmacher, a Sierra Club member who has offered ideas for the new rules. “They aren’t tree experts.”

Schuhmacher retired as a biology professor from Kean University in New Jersey. “This area is like the New Jersey shore was 50 or 60 years ago,” the Ricefields resident said. “I don’t want to see it become like New Jersey is today.”

Dan Scheffing, who chairs the county Economic Development Commission, was involved with tree regulations in other counties during more than 30 years as a land agent for MeadWestvaco. Now a forestry consultant, he has also offered input on the county’s tree rules.

“I think they’re going to end up with a reasonable ordinance,” he said.

The commission has avoided the kinds of details that make regulations in other counties hard to work with, he said.

“When you get down in the weeds, that’s when you have trouble,” Scheffing said.

The commission hoped to send new tree rules to County Council this month. But the process has stalled as commission members and planning staff try to come up with a formula to mitigate the loss of trees to development.

The current ordinance requires property owners to maintain at least 15 square feet of “basal area” per acre. Basal area is based on the diameter of a tree trunk measured at chest height. And mitigation only applies to hardwood and ornamental species, typically greater than 8 inches in diameter.

The Sierra Club proposed a plan to keep the same basal area before and after development, with a developer paying into a “tree bank” if he couldn’t plant enough replacement trees on his land.

That wasn’t practical when planners applied the idea to an actual development plan.

“Some of these scenarios were way out as far as replacements, and monetarily,” commission member Glenda Shoulette said.

The current requirement is actually close to the amount of trees land can support, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. “A lot more thought went into that number than I gave them credit for,” he said.

At a workshop last week, the commission narrowed its focus on mitigation plans that would include a cap on the number of replacement trees at 120 an acre. After talking with people in the timber industry, Johnson estimates 40 trees an acre is what the land will support.

But the replanted trees would only be 2 or 3 inches in diameter. The current ordinance requires 2-inch trees. The revision proposes 3-inch trees.

The difference is significant, Scheffing said, because a 2-inch tree is likely to be more adaptable to land that has been altered for development. After a few years of growth, the difference won’t be noticeable, he said.

The commission will also consider increasing the size of protected trees, called “significant” in the zoning ordinance, from 8 to 10 inches in diameter. It will also consider increasing the mitigation standard from 15 to 20 square feet of basal area an acre.

The commission is also focused on protecting “landmark” trees, which include species of oak and cypress, with trunks 30 inches in diameter and above.

Commission chairman Jeff Kinard said he likes the idea of tougher mitigation standards for removing landmark trees. “We need to replace trees, but we are all more concerned about what gets cut down,” he said.

A proposed development on 2.4 acres has been the commission’s testing ground for different formulas. It would cut two landmark trees and 69 significant trees in order to erect an 18,000-square-foot building.

Under the current rules, the developer would have to plant 51 2-inch replacement trees.

Under a formula that increases protection for the largest trees, but caps the number of replacement trees, he would have to plant 39 trees and pay $10,200 into the tree bank.

If the developer leaves the two landmark trees, he would plant 39 replacements and pay $3,300 into the tree bank.

Under the current ordinance, cutting a 40-inch live oak would require planting 18 replacement trees. Under the revision, it would require 89 replacements, said Holly Richardson, a senior planner.

“It was trying to get to what was the value of that landmark tree,” she said.

Schuhmacher said that’s an important step. “These landmark trees have value,” he said.

Scheffing agreed, but only up to a point. “If you asked a hundred different people, you’d get a hundred different answers,” he said.

While there needs to be a penalty for removing landmark trees, “we’re going to have to deal with a million scenarios,” commission member Brian Henry said.

In the case of an owner who can’t develop his land without cutting a landmark tree, he said he isn’t sure there should be a penalty – as long as all the other rules are met. He suggested removing the building footprint from the lot area used in calculating the mitigation requirement.

“I’m not trying to water it down, but it would be a lot easier,” he said.

Kinard said he didn’t think that would work. If someone wanted to use all the buildable area for a structure, they shouldn’t be able to opt out of paying into the tree bank as mitigation.

“We can’t give them a free walk,” Shoulette said.

Commission member Tommy Edwards suggested it’s a matter of perspective. “Is he paying a penalty or is he paying to improve the environment?” he asked.

“He’s paying to take a landmark tree out of our county,” commission member Larry Fox said.

The commission is expected to continue work on the tree rules next month.

“This is so much fun,” Kinard said. “Actually, it is.”

“At least we’re taking it seriously,” Henry said.

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