South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

County OKs tree protection changes
October 5th, 2018

By Clayton Stairs

Georgetown County is one step closer to having permanent protections against developers that clear cut land for residential and commercial projects.

At its Oct. 2 meeting, rescheduled from Sept. 25, County Council approved second reading of an ordinance that makes changes to the tree protection section of the county zoning ordinance. Those changes will deter developers from clear cutting trees, add tree protections based mostly on size rather than tree type and create urban and rural overlay zones where different rules apply. Third and final reading of the ordinance will be during council's Oct. 9 meeting.

County Planning Director Boyd Johnson said during his report to council on Oct. 2 that the main reason for the changes is to address concerns by Waccamaw Neck residents about clear-cutting practices in that area.

"We have heard a lot about clear-cutting, or mass grading and I think that’s where the real problem is," Johnson said. "Large tract developers like to come in and clear everything except what we say can't be cleared, in order to mobilize."

He said some of these developers put 3 feet of fill dirt on the property so the trees would die. He said the changes to the ordinance will prohibit that also.

Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, and Jessie White, staff attorney with SCELP, both spoke in favor of the changes to county tree protections during the public comment period of the meeting. Armstrong commended staff and council for strengthening tree protections.

"I have lived in Georgetown County for 16 years and one of the things I've valued most about this area is the wonderful natural resources, and the trees most significantly," Armstrong said. "Seeing clear cut after clear cut degrades the quality of life of the residents."

She said these changes to tree protections in the county are a step in the right direction, but there is even more that can be done to protect them. She said trees have a variety of benefits for humanity.

"Trees soak up flood waters, they provide shade and offer habitat for animals," Armstrong said. "This is a tremendous step in the right direction."

White agreed, adding that increased tree protection is a reflection of community values.

"I would ask council consider who is to gain for a lax tree ordinance with no teeth," she said. "These amendments are not going to keep developers from developing and causing permanent and negative damage, but tree protections will help increase property values and allow for buffers and aesthetic beauty."

At its July 24 meeting, County Council approved first reading of the tree protection ordinance laying out the changes. Council also approved a motion to adopt the pending ordinance doctrine to make the changes effective on first reading. The County Council meetings on Sept. 11 and 25 were canceled due to Hurricane Florence and the threat of flooding that followed and the Oct. 2 meeting was called to make up that time.

The tree protection changes include defining terms such as "mass grading," usually done by cutting trees but also by adding fill dirt around trees as a means to kill the trees. Another term, "grand trees," is defined as trees being at least 30 inches in diameter at breast height. Protected trees for residents on the Waccamaw Neck will be specified.

Johnson said that since the development characteristics of the county are extremely different between the rural areas in the western part of the county and the Waccamaw Neck, two overlay zones are proposed that address tree protection in different manners: urban and rural.

Occupied single family lots in the rural overlay zone are still exempt from the tree regulations. However, in the urban overlay (Waccamaw Neck), grand trees are protected on occupied single family lots. In order to remove a grand tree on an occupied residential lot in the urban area, a variance must be obtained from the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.

"In the rural overlay zone, protected trees are specifically listed," Johnson's report states. "In the urban overlay zone, protected trees are 'all trees of at least 10 inches in diameter at breast height, except for palmetto, Bradford pear, pecan, pine, and wax or crepe myrtle.'"

In the enforcement section, withholding approvals and stop work orders have been added as an enforcement mechanism.

"Tree removal permits will not be issued at the time a subdivision is approved and land clearing and grading begins," Johnson's report said. "Most developers prefer to remove the trees at the beginning of the subdivision construction process as it only requires one mobilization. Staff has found that if tree removal permits are only issued on a lot-by-lot basis, when a building permit is sought, tree protection is greatly enhanced."

Source (external link)