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Replanting numbers still don't add up for board

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Debate over how to mitigate the loss of hardwood trees to development delayed revisions to Georgetown County’s tree regulations last year, but Planning Commission members say they are determined to send the new rules to County Council in April.

That was before they hit another snag in the process during the commission’s annual retreat last weekend: what to do with someone who wants to develop a parcel that doesn’t have any hardwoods to begin with.

Under the current rules, which are part of the zoning ordinance, owners who want to develop property for commercial or multi-family residential projects have to plant trees to establish a density of at least 15 square feet of trunk area per acre. But that provision isn’t strictly enforced, according to planning staff.

Under the revised rules, an owner would have to establish at least 20 square feet of trunk area, also known as basal area.

“Time out,” commission member Brian Henry said. “If you have a vacant lot, you have to plant 20 square feet?”

“It’s not a big deal,” commission chairman Jeff Kinard said. “You’re talking about two or three trees.”

But Henry proposed a hypothetical situation where the owner of a vacant 3-acre parcel wanted to build a 10,000-square-foot building. Holly Richardson, a senior planner, ran the numbers and said the owner would have to plan 135 trees.

“That’s onerous,” Kinard said. “Ten makes sense, 20 makes sense.”

The commission began work on the tree rules with a proposal from the Sierra Club that would require owners to replace the tree cover lost to development.

Applied to actual developments, the commission found that idea would result in owners having to plant more trees than the property could hold. To mitigate that by paying into a “tree bank” would cost thousands of dollars.

The commission scaled back its replacement formula to the 20 square feet of basal area per acre that’s included in the existing rules. It increased the permit requirements to protect existing hardwoods, particularly large species such as live oaks.

And, at its retreat, it scrapped plans for a tree bank.

“When I go back and look, you’re penalizing the guy for not having enough property,” Kinard said.

The commission seemed on track to complete the revision, which it initially hoped to pass on to County Council in December. But it was stymied by the vacant lot scenario.

“They’re not taking down any trees to begin with,” Henry said.

But commission member Glenda Shoulette said the intent isn’t just replacement, it’s maintaining a tree cover.

“It’s how you want your community to look,” she said.

Richardson pointed out the zoning ordinance requires landscaped buffers, which could lead to trees being planted.

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said the city of Myrtle Beach sets a minimum number of trees for vacant property.

He suggested a planting formula based on the size of the building setbacks rather than the buildable area.

Kinard figured that on the hypothetical 3 acres, that formula would require planting 53 trees. “That’s a lot,” he said.

“If it were me, you replace what you took out,” Henry said.

“Protect what you’ve got and replace what you take down.”

Kinard said he wants to come up with some reasonable requirement, based on the estimated cost of $200 to $300 for a live oak sapling.

“We’re going to make sense out of this thing yet,” he said.

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