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Environment: Council members cautious about live oak protections

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

It’s anyone’s guess what the future will be for a Georgetown County tree ordinance amendment that would protect “legacy” live oaks on the Waccamaw Neck. But whatever action County Council members decide on, they said it won’t be done lightly.

The amendment will come before council for first reading on Tuesday and before then council members said they will be investigating every aspect and weighing the arguments carefully to find the right balance between protection of trees and personal property rights.

“I’ve done my due diligence about 14 times over,” said Council Member Bob Anderson.

He has consulted with arborists, the county attorney, the county planning director, other council members and a number of constituents about the matter.

“I’ve looked at it from A to Z several times and tried to weigh it as best I could, because it’s an emotional issue for people,” Anderson said. “I couldn’t think of any more I could do and I made my decision about how I will vote.

“It was really tough for me,” Anderson added. “I’m a tree lover and an outdoorsman, but I believe, being a Republican, in personal property rights. I tried to look at the big picture and what the impact will be 10 years from now.”

The amendment applies to occupied single-family property and would create an overlay zone on the Waccamaw Neck in which very large live oaks – those with trunks of 30 inches or more in diameter – couldn’t be cut without a permit. Those would be approved to cut dead or diseased trees, trees that are a danger to life or property and trees that impact the health of adjacent trees.

Permits are already required to cut protected trees on unoccupied and business property, but council removed restrictions for occupied single-family homes when it revised the tree ordinance in 2010. It was done without much remark, but when a large oak tree was cut in Murrells Inlet to make way for a swimming pool in October, residents started calling for protections to be reinstated, leading to protests from those who say it infringes on property rights.

“It’s one of those issues where many folks have strong feelings about it on both sides,” said Council Member Jerry Oakley, who requested that the amendment be drafted. “Those kinds of issues in my judgement deserve every consideration before action is taken.”

A “significant” number of people have contacted him to comment on the matter and most support some measure of protection, he said.

“The issue is whether a community wherein many folks are strong property rights advocates would come to view the very few legacy landmark live oak trees that we have as such an exceptional and extraordinary community asset as to merit special consideration.”

Council Member Ron Charlton represents the southern part of the Waccamaw Neck, as well as the city of Georgetown, which puts him in a unique situation, trying to look after the best interests of constituents on both sides of the river.

While the amendment would only affect the Waccamaw Neck, he said most of the opposition he is hearing comes from other areas. People either don’t realize the western part of the county isn’t affected or believe the amendment will open the door for protections to be reinstated in other areas, too.

In addition to reassuring those constituents, Charlton said he faces the same dilemma as Anderson.

“I want to see the trees protected that need to be protected,” he said. “I know because I have real estate that those trees add value to the property. They also have aesthetic and environmental value. But personal property rights mean a lot to me as well and it seems we continue to keep adding on layers of regulation. It gets burdensome.”

Finding the right answer will be “a balancing act.”

“It was a battle in the original tree ordinance and I think we found common ground,” Charlton said. “I think that’s what we have to do with this is find some common ground.”

One suggestion for finding that ground is to send the amendment to council’s land use and tourism committee at first reading due to the complexity of the issue and its controversial nature, Oakley said.

“That might be the best place for it to go so all these things can be duly considered, he said.

Oakley sits on the committee, as does Charlton, Lillie Jean Johnson and Austin Beard.

Beard, who represents Andrews, said he too is divided on the issue.

“I kind of see both sides,” he said. “It’s kind of a fine line. Certainly our environment needs to be protected, but at the same time, we’re infringing on individual rights.

“I just don’t know yet,” he said. “I need to meet with my colleagues on Waccamaw Neck and see what their thoughts are.”

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