South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

The Angel Oak has long enjoyed a sizable buffer from development on all sides. While the county park where the Angel Oak stands was until recently merely two acres in size, the surrounding private property had remained as farm or woodland. However, a Charleston developer (Angel Oak Village or AOV) proposed to change things drastically.

AOV owned 42 acres bordering the northern half of Angel Oak and this property, still completely forested, would have been essentially clear cut except for a narrow buffer around the Park. A number of experts evaluated the project and determined that it stood to significantly impact the Angel Oak Tree and could very well lead to the eventual demise of the ancient tree.

In fact, the initial proposal was truly appalling. On the 42 acre site adjacent to the Angel Oak, the developer proposed to build 630 residential units; to build 80,000 sq. ft. of retail, including big box retail; to fill 5.42 acres of the 6.46 wetland acres onsite; and to provide almost no buffer around the Angel Oak. Through the concerted efforts of many over several years, this proposal was gradually chipped down. The fight culminated in a case filed by SCELP in the Administrative Law Court on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League and Save the Angel Oak.

During SCELP's trial of this case, we presented expert witnesses who expressed their opinion that the proposed development would impact the roots, hydrology and overall health of the Angel Oak, shortening the tree's remaining life.

Although we were unsuccessful before the Administrative Law Court and were forced to file an appeal in the Court of Appeals, that appeal eventually prompted the extremely beneficial settlement agreement.

This resolution provided many important protections for the Angel Oak tree, and it would have been impossible without the energetic work and cooperation of all the organizations involved and many passionate individuals. As a result of the settlement agreement we negotiated, the entire 42 acres surrounding the Angel Oak are now permanently protected.

During the course of the appeal of the permit, the developer's lender foreclosed on the property and gained control of what was now a 36-acre property, after the City of Charleston purchased the developer’s six-acre conservation zone to add to the two-acre city park surrounding the tree. The main feature of the settlement was that it set in motion the purchase of the property by the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, facilitated by grant funding from Charleston County Greenbelt Fund and the extraordinary generosity of many sea islanders, Charlestonians, businesses, nonprofit organizations and friends of the Angel Oak from around the world.

The settlement and the ultimate conservation outcome was a momentous victory for the local community and anyone who believes that the Angel Oak has a value for future generations that far exceed any short-term development profits.

Angel Oak

The Angel Oak is the oldest tree east of the Rocky Mountains. It is estimated to be in excess of 400-500 years old although there is considerable debate about the age of the Angel Oak, with some contending that it is 1,500 years old. For those who have not had the pleasure of visiting the Tree, its grand stature is difficult to comprehend. It stands 66.5 ft tall, measures 28 ft in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet. From tip to tip Its longest branch distance is 187 ft. Extending out from this trunk are several main branches that are themselves the size of other ancient live oak trees. The branches expand out and sag to the ground in many spots under their own great weight.