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Environment: Live oaks at county gateway in the path of road project

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Efforts to protect large “legacy” oak trees hit a brick wall in Georgetown County last week, but a group of Murrells Inlet residents have had better luck just over the county line.

Residents were taken aback when they learned of plans to remove a small grove of live oaks on Highway 707 in Horry County as part of a project to widen the road. Their concerns were heard and plans to alter the project to preserve most of the trees are under discussion.

“We’ve got some options. I don’t think there is any way to save them all, unfortunately, but we’re going to do our best and save as much as we possibly can,” said Horry County Council Member Gary Loftus. “It will cost a little bit more money, but so what.”

To him, the value of the trees is worth it, and savings will be achieved in other areas to offset the cost, he said.

Additionally, “the costs we’re talking about are not that excessive.” He estimates it to be less than $1 million in a $40 or $50 million project that will still come in under budget.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “My mother would be twisting in her grave if she knew I was doing anything else.”

The trees are about a quarter of a mile over the county line on the ancestral property of Richard Knox III and were planted more than 150 years ago by one of his forebears.

They are part of the gateway to Murrells Inlet and that alone is reason enough for their protection, said Bill Chandler, an inlet resident and long-time friend to the Knox family.

Plans for the road project showed property being taken on both sides of the highway for the widening, removing a number of the oaks.

“I’ve been talking to different people about trying to take the right of way on the west side of what exists and widen [the highway] in a westerly direction so it doesn’t upset the Knox property or those oaks,” Chandler said.

Knox and Teresa Puckett, a Prince Creek resident, have also been working to save the trees. She tied ribbons around the trees and put up a sign along the road to inform passersby about the situation and drum up support for saving the trees.

“I pass that way numerous times during the day. When I learned through a Burgess community meeting they were going to take those trees out, I couldn’t believe it,” Puckett said. “It’s such a shame because those are native trees and they’re just gorgeous.”

As she was out tying on the ribbons, motorists stopped to tell her they were devastated to find out the trees were in danger, she said.

When she contacted Loftus about the situation last year, it sounded like a done deal. But Loftus took up the cause and has made much headway.

Officials are now looking at expanding on the side of the road opposite Knox’s property, as Chandler argued for.

“We’ll have to buy land and move businesses we weren’t planning on moving,” Loftus said.

A concrete plant across from the Knox property would be affected.

“I think that’s the best way to do it and that’s what they’re shooting for now,” Knox said.

Knox wants to see the trees saved if there’s any possible way, and it sounds like highway officials are on board following a conversation he had with the project manager from the S.C. Department of Transportation, he added. “Hopefully concerned citizens getting involved will help.”

“It’s hung up in the permitting process right now, but that has nothing to do with the oaks and everything to do with the Corps of Engineers,” Loftus said.

He is planning a meeting in the coming weeks with residents concerned about the oaks, he said. He wanted to do it earlier, but recently had surgery and had to put his plans on hold while he recovered.

In Georgetown County, council members effectively killed an amendment to the tree regulations last week that would have put protections in place for very large live oaks at single-family residences on the Waccamaw Neck.

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