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Tree rules: Compromises take root after months of discussion

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A new set of tree protection rules for Georgetown County is on track for approval this spring after the Planning Commission last week reached agreement on how the rules will apply to residential property and vacant lots.

The current rules, which apply only to large hardwood trees, are limited to trees in the building setbacks of residential lots. The new rules would apply to the entire lot, and require a permit for removing protected species.

The commission agreed last week that residential property owners will have to plant replacement trees if they remove landmark trees, such as large live oaks. But they won’t be held to the same replacement standard as commercial property owners.

Commission members Glenda Shoulette and Marvin Neal argued against making single-family property owners plant replacement trees. “It’s a big burden,” Shoulette said, especially on property owners in the rural areas.

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said that other county staff told him “it would be difficult” to get approved by County Council.

“It’s a money thing,” Johnson said. Using replacement trees with trunks 3 inches in diameter, it would cost about $1,000 to replace a landmark tree.

“A tree on a residential lot deserves to be protected as much as a tree on a commercial lot,” commission chairman Jeff Kinard said.

“If we sidestep that, we sidestep a major portion of what we’ve done,” commission member Tommy Edwards said.

Even on a residential lot, the new rules wouldn’t allow a landmark tree to be removed unless there was “no reasonable way to get a house on the lot,” Johnson said.

Commission member Brian Henry said there is an economic impact for commercial property owners, too. He said tree protection needs to be “fair and equitable.”

“Someone impressed on me long ago: The trees win,” commission member Larry Fox said.

“That was me,” Neal said. “I love trees.” But he said $1,000 is too high a cost for some homeowners in the county.

A proposal from the local Sierra Club chapter gave the commission ground for compromise.

Bob Schuhmacher, a club member, told the commission that not all replacement trees need to be landmark species. “There is no reason that small trees and shrubs used for landscaping, which are not on the protected list of significant and landmark trees, could not be used for this purpose,” he said.

The commission agreed to allow 1-inch replacement trees for residential property, though Fox said the rules need to make sure that landmark trees are replaced with other canopy trees.

“I don’t see a redbud replacing a live oak,” he said.

The commission also agreed that development of vacant land, such as farm tracts, won’t trigger the owner to establish tree cover on the property. The current rules require planting equal to 15 square feet of trunk area, or basal area, per acre, although planning staff say they can’t recall a case where that has been enforced.

Shoulette favored a planting requirement. “It’s about protecting your culture,” she said. Henry said the goal is to protect existing trees.

In the case of commercial development, Holly Richardson, a senior planner, said that buffering and parking lot landscape rules would come into play. The amount of trees be planted depends on the size and use of the development, she said.

Kinard suggested the commission amend the buffer and landscape rules to require trees from the list of protected species. The other members agreed.

In another change, the commission decided to restore a tree fund to the new set of regulations. It had been dropped in earlier discussions because members didn’t want it to become an alternative to planting trees. They also couldn’t agree on when and how much a property owner would have to pay into the fund.

Johnson said he envisioned the fund as an alternative for someone with limited space for planting replacement trees, such as an owner with a power line easement on his property. Edwards urged the commission to keep the fund as a potential source of money to beautify and maintain the medians along the county’s major highways.

The commission didn’t discuss what will trigger payments into the fund, but they did agree to recommend County Council allocate any fines that arise from the new tree rules toward highway beautification.

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