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Environment: Council takes ax to live oak protection

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

An amendment that would have restored protections for very large live oak trees on the Waccamaw Neck is effectively dead.

When it came up for first reading by Georgetown County Council this week, council members voted unanimously to table it, an action used for agenda items that are being put out to pasture, generally never to be seen or heard from again.

The move caught proponents unaware.

There was no discussion and it didn’t seem to come as a surprise to council members, including Jerry Oakley, who requested the amendment be drafted after hearing concerns from constituents about the lack of protections for those trees.

However, others weren’t happy about the amendment, arguing that it infringed on private property rights.

“The issue became controversial with strong feelings on both sides,” Oakley said. “At the end, it was not about trees. It was about strong opposition to any more regulation, and strong feelings about private property rights. The opposition was not against preserving trees. It was just folks not wanting the county to tell them what they could or could not do with trees in their own yard.”

The amendment was approved by the Planning Commission last month. It would have applied only to live oaks with trunks of 30 inches or more in diameter at occupied single-family homes on the Waccamaw Neck. Permits for cutting would have been available for dead or diseased trees, trees threatening life or property and trees impacting the health of adjacent trees.

“I think Jerry decided he knew where I was and where Austin [Beard] and Ron [Charlton] were probably going to be,” said Bob Anderson, who made the motion to table the amendment.

Beard, who represents Andrews, and Charlton, who represents the southern part of the Waccamaw Neck as well as the City of Georgetown, were getting pressure from constituents on the other side of the river who were concerned about the ramifications of the amendment, even though it didn’t apply there.

It became clear Oakley wasn’t likely to find enough votes on the seven-member council to get the amendment passed.

“I did my due diligence and I looked at everything,” Anderson said. “As I said two months ago, if somebody has got a beautiful tree in their yard and if they’re damn fool enough to cut it down, it’s their property and their tree and they can do what they want to with it. In the end it came back to that.

“Trees are great, but they are renewable and personal property rights are not. We’ve already been chipping away at those for the last 50 years at every level of government.”

Supporters of the amendment were taken by surprise after being told it would likely be sent to committee.

They had planned to turn out to address council when the amendment reached second reading.

“They said that was the important time to be there,” said Bob Schuhmacher of Ricefields. “I am flabbergasted and I do not understand the reasoning or the justification for not even considering it.”

Schuhmacher, a retired botanist assisted the planning commission in 2010 when it set out to strengthen the tree ordinance. He received the Conservationist of the Year Award last year from the Sierra Club’s Winyah Group for his efforts.

The document the commission submitted lost its teeth after being submitted to council and passed on to a committee. The version approved removed limited protections in place for trees at occupied single family residences.

Only one person, Bill Renault of Tradition, was present Tuesday to speak in support of the amendment. He is a board member of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners, which represents nearly 50 associations, and spoke on its behalf.

“We’re asking for careful protection of some of nature’s truly beautiful creations,” he said.

Renault spoke at first reading because he wasn’t aware that a second reading is usually when most of the discussion on issues takes place, but he would have been present then, too.

“I felt it was important that the association I represent be on record,” he said. He called council’s action “disappointing” and said it’s a shame the amendment became such a hot button issue.

Brian Henry, chairman of the Planning Commission, was upset more by how council handled the issue than the outcome.

“Property rights advocates have legitimate concerns in this debate. I agree with many of their arguments. But my issue is that these individuals tend to make their points by submitting editorials in the paper and by having back room discussions out of plain view,” Henry said. “When it comes to having an open, public discussion, they don’t show up ... It sounds like County Council is taking the same posture – attempting to resolve this conflict by having closed door negotiations and not giving the public a chance to have a voice on this important and contentious issue.

“By tabling this at first reading, they are effectively denying this revision a chance to be heard. Appeasing property rights advocates without even having a debate is not fair, reeks of political posturing, and shows an unwillingness to represent their constituency.”

Tabling the amendment at first reading “shows that council is more concerned about what is politically proper or maintaining the status quo than what’s the greater benefit for the entire community,” according to Schuhmacher.

“I’m not sure what happened here,” he said. “I think what we’re going to have to do is make sure this issue does not die. If something is the right thing to do, you don’t just let it go because it’s politically unpopular.”

Looking at tree ordinances that have been passed and “worked beautifully” around the state, Schuhmacher said he has to “wonder why Georgetown County is working in the 18th century.”

“To just allow anybody to do anything they want to, it just is not something that makes sense in a modern society where you have a high density population,” he said. “I can see where people in the back end of the county where they have big farms and very little development, where they cut trees down for firewood, can see no use for this ordinance, but the proposed amendment excluded those people from the permitting process.”

Henry said he can’t understand why owners of commercial property are being held to a different standard than residential property owners, he added. Commercial property owners have to comply with tree regulations.

“Aren’t we essentially talking about the same people? I have a home and operate three businesses on the Waccamaw Neck,” he said. “Why would tree protection differ from one piece of dirt to the other?”

The need for the protection of oak trees on the Waccamaw Neck is “a clear and present issue,” and “the status quo is no longer acceptable,” he said.

“This is a Waccamaw Neck issue that needs clarity and discussion. And it is one that the elected members of County Council need to debate openly, then let the chips fall where they may,” Henry said. “We, the planning commission, have spent considerable time and diligence on this issue the last two years because we felt like it deserved the attention. And it certainly warrants honest consideration and open discussion from Council as well.”

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