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County scales back changes in tree protection

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A new version of county tree protection rules would eliminate limited restrictions now in place for homeowners.

Under current rules, permits are required to cut trees within setbacks on residential properties. A version of the rules proposed last month would have required residential property owners to get a permit to cut down protected trees anywhere on the property, but members of a Georgetown County Council committee said the requirement would have been too much of a burden on homeowners and county staff.

Proposed rules the committee saw this week would exempt occupied single-family residential properties from any tree rules.

Homeowners in areas of the county that were unzoned until two years ago and not subject to tree protection rules have acted responsibly in the past and county staff is willing to trust them to do so in the future, County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

The rules will still apply to single-family parcels that haven’t been developed, as well as commercial and multi-family residential properties.

The committee instructed staff to go ahead with incorporating the revision, along with several other changes, into a proposed amendment to the tree protection ordinance. The new rules are an effort to strengthen the ordinance by making it easier to interpret and enforce. A draft will go back to the committee next month and the group will make a recommendation to council for its Sept. 14 meeting.

Even without any restriction for homeowners, area environmentalists who pushed for stronger tree protection laws said the new rules would still be an improvement.

“We’ll have some protection now for trees in waterways,” said Hobie Kraner, retired county chairman of the Sierra Club’s Winyah chapter.

That’s worth some concessions, he said.

“This is a process that requires some compromise,” said John Bracken, another member of the group. “I’m glad to see that the committee has come to an agreement and the process appears to be moving forward as opposed to stalling or failing.”

Other changes being made to the proposal include a shorter list of protected trees and a simpler method for determining how many replacements need to be planted when trees are cut.

The list of protected trees contained 42 species when the committee reviewed it in July.

Staff was told the list was too extensive.

The list now contains 10 bulleted items, but it still protects most oak and hickory trees. The red maple, bald and pond cypress, magnolia, American beech, American elm and river birch trees are also protected. Longleaf pines are protected only on Waccamaw Neck.

“We did try to look at things like stormwater absorption” in selecting protected trees, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. Canopy size and whether the trees are indigenous to the county were also considered.

Only trees with trunks at least 8 inches in diameter are protected.

A list of “landmark” trees has been eliminated, but additional replacement requirements will exist for protected trees with a diameter of at least 30 inches.

Rick Baumann, area chairman for Ducks Unlimited, said he hopes the county will look at adding back in some of the species that didn’t make the cut, even if they’re only protected on Waccamaw Neck.

Previous proposals called for replacement trees to be calculated using a formula based on basal area, but “a lot of people had trouble understanding it,” Johnson said. “It required a lot of calculations.”

Mitigation will now be determined based on a ratio that calls for one tree per 1,000 square feet of land, not including areas covered by buildings or parking lots.

The new formula is less complex and factors in the number of trees an acre can support to prevent overplanting, Johnson said.

Rules still call for a penalty of $500 for every tree that is cut illegally.

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