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Council looks at new tree rules and sees loopholes

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council members don’t have an issue with the intent behind new tree protection rules proposed by county planning officials, but the document the rules comprise needs work before council accepts it, they said.

Council voted on Tuesday to refer the new rules to its land use and tourism subcommittee for refinement before council considers them again.

The document “has some form problems,” said Council Member Glen O’Connell, who made the motion and chairs the subcommittee.

O’Connell and Council Member Jerry Oakley, who sits on the subcommittee, said there are a number of issues with the ordinance that need to be addressed, many having to do with wording that could have unintended consequences.

For example, the rules would require residential property owners to have a permit to cut, remove or “otherwise disturb” certain large hardwoods.

“That could apply to all kinds of things, including fertilizing, pruning and things that, as far as I know, no one intended,” O’Connell said.

Oakley said there are many instances throughout the ordinance where corrections need to be made for technical and legal accuracy.

“It needs to be precise, so there’s no doubt what’s being said,” he explained.

O’Connell also has concerns about a part of the document that requires the planting of replacement trees. He said there may be a loophole that would allow someone to plant replacement trees and cut them down, because the replacement trees wouldn’t be big enough to fall under protection rules.

Protected trees are generally hardwoods with trunks at least 8 inches in diameter.

“We need to look at this carefully, because we know people will be looking for ways to get around this thing,” O’Connell said.

The committee will seek input from county attorney Wesley Bryant to ensure there are no legal loopholes in the document and that it will be capable of holding up in court.

The county already has tree regulations in place that have proven hard to interpret and difficult to enforce, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director.

O’Connell and Oakley said they know area environmentalists are eager to see the new rules go into effect, but there’s no point in adopting rules that have the same problem.

“I completely, passionately support the protection of trees, but I want an ordinance that works and is enforceable,” Oakley said. “I don’t want to get to the point where we have the first violation charge and [Bryant] says we don’t have a prayer in court, because it’s not drawn right.”

Members of the local chapter of the Sierra Club are disappointed at the delay.

“We don’t want things to get cut down while we’re fiddling with the law,” said Bob Schuhmacher, a retired botanist and a member of the club. But he said they recognize “there are some things that probably can be improved. We just have to wait and see what the subcommittee comes up with.”

Members of the club gave input to the County Planning Commission on the ordinance and will continue to watch it closely.

“We’ll definitely be keeping our eyes on things,” Schuhmacher said. “We researched ordinances from several states, including four from South Carolina and submitted those to the planning commission for review, so we know what should be in there to protect the trees and landscape.”

He said the club will also continue to offer input where possible.

O’Connell said he can’t guess yet how extensive revisions to the rules might be or how long they might take. He said the ordinance needs to be reordered and made easier to understand before he can gauge that.

The committee will consider putting the rules into categorized sections to make information easier to find.

“That is likely to make it longer, because you’re bound to have some information repeated when it pertains to multiple sections, but the thought is that most people aren’t going to read the whole thing. They’re going to be looking for something specific.”

Once the document has been made more reader-friendly, he said the committee will be better able to look at issues of content.

In addition to revising wording for clarity and precision, O’Connell said the committee will examine the formula used for determining how many replacement trees need to be planted.

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 a lot had less basal area before development, they are required to restore it to its original basal area.

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

“I have concerns it may still require too many trees for a piece of ground,” O’Connell said, but he wants to look at the formula more closely before he gives a definite opinion.

He said input from planning staff will also need to be sought about what will be required to enforce the new rules in terms of staff. If the planning department doesn’t have enough staff or “the right kind of staff, we may have to back off of some things we’d like to do,” O’Connell said. “Those are things I don’t want to see glossed over.”

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