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Tree rules: Increased protection draws only kind words at hearing

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Members of the Georgetown County Planning Commission were braced for complaints about tougher tree protection rules that will require residential property owners to get a permit to cut certain large hardwoods.

But they heard only thanks from environmental groups at a hearing last week before voting to send the revised tree rules to County Council for final approval.

“We’re very appreciative of your efforts to put together such an ordinance, which we think will be truly protective of our trees and the community,” said Christine Ellis, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper.

Ellis was one of six who commended the commission on its work and encouraged them to pass the final draft on to County Council. She particularly liked the consideration the rules give to stormwater matters and to trees that grow along waterways.

“In my years as Riverkeeper, I’ve seen many waterway trees cut down and there has been no vehicle to enforce their protection,” she said.

The new rules prohibit cutting trees in a waterway unless for construction of a dock.

The revisions include a more detailed list of the tree species that are protected and make the ordinance easier to interpret and enforce, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

On Waccamaw Neck, the list of “significant” trees will now include longleaf pines with trunks greater than 12 inches in diameter.

Significant trees are generally hardwoods with trunks of 8 inches or more in diameter. “Landmark” trees are hardwoods with trunks of 30 inches or more.

Owners of single-family residential property will need county approval in order to cut down significant trees.

“The old ordinance protected trees inside the setback, but not in the buildable area unless they were landmark trees,” Johnson said. “That would mean someone could cut a significant tree in the buildable area for no reason, even if there’s plenty of room to build a house without cutting the tree.”

If approval is given to cut a landmark tree, three 1-inch trees must be planted as mitigation.

Single-family parcels are exempt from the rules that require property owners to plant replacements when protected trees are removed for development.

In commercial zoning districts, property owners are required to maintain 20 square feet of “basal area” (trunk diameter measured 4-1/2 feet above the ground) per acre. If the lot had less basal area before development, they are only required to restore it to its original basal area.

And only protected species are counted toward that basal area requirement.

Farmland, timber operations and golf courses are exempt from the regulations. Only landmark trees are protected on industrial sites.

A new rule will require that subdivisions be designed to minimize the need to remove protected trees in the future, said Holly Richardson, a senior planner.

Under the revised rules, each tree cut without a permit is a separate violation that carries a fine of up to $500. With court fees, that could cost a property owner more than $1,000.

In cases where replacement trees have to be replaced on lots with at least 100 feet of frontage on a major highway, including Highway 17, at least one of the trees must be planted along the highway.

A permit will also be required to prune the limbs and roots of protected trees in commercial districts. The existing rules include pruning guidelines, but don’t require a permit, Richardson said.

The local Sierra Club chapter offered input during the six months that the commission took to come up with the new rules. Members of the group praised the commission for its efforts and thanked it for allowing environmentalists to have a role in the process.

“The interaction has been a wonderful experience,” said Hobie Kraner, co-chairman of the chapter.

The only criticism of the revisions had to do with some confusing wording, and stylistic and typographical errors pointed out by Tom Stickler, a former editor. He is also president of the Hagley Estates Property Owners Association, though he said he wasn’t representing the group.

A formula for calculating the number of replacement trees didn’t seem to add up, Stickler said. Based on the example given in an appendix to the ordinance, a property owner would have to replace fewer trees than the actual text of the ordinance seems to require.

That and a handful of other corrections and clarifications Stickler suggested are being reviewed by planning staff.

When the public hearing closed with no opposition to the revisions, commission chairman Jeff Kinard feigned surprise and asked if he was at the right meeting.

He thanked speakers for their kind words and, with no further discussion, the commission unanimously voted to send it to council for final approval.

The draft should receive first reading by council on June 8. If there are no further delays, the new rules would be in place by mid-July.

With revision of the tree ordinance complete, the planning commission will turn its sights back to revising the county sign ordinance, a process it put on hold last year.

The tree ordinance was a big challenge, but Johnson said he anticipates signs will be more complicated and more controversial.

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