South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Developer in Battle to Build Near Angel Oak
November 23rd, 2011

For five years, the future of a centuries-old live oak tree has been the subject of a heated dispute on Johns Island: whether a new apartment complex will kill the iconic symbol of the Lowcountry.

Angel Oak boosters have waged a small war against developer Robert DeMoura, filing legal challenges and organizing political rallies in the hope of stopping his multi-phase development in Charleston County.

Now, they appear to be winning the battle.

Angel Oak on Johns Island, S.C. Development is creeping slowly around the ancient Angel Oak, reputed in local lore to be 1,400 years old and the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi.

DeMoura’s lawyers said in court Monday he’s low on money and facing bankruptcy. His financial partners have dropped out of the Angel Oak project and a bank note is long past due, court records show.

And DeMoura, a feisty ex-Navy officer, is trying to sell the first phase of the project to a business group from North Carolina. Otherwise, he faces a possible judgment of $8.4 million, records show.

“We’re out of money and we’re out of time,’’ said DeMoura’s lawyer, Mary Shahid.

During an administrative court hearing Monday in Columbia, Shahid asked a judge to speed up a case that challenges state environmental permits for the Angel Oak apartment project. If the case can be heard quickly enough, “some white knights (are) standing to bail the project out,’’ she said.

But Angel Oak supporter Lorna Young Hattler said she’s encouraged that the development finally may be stopped. She’s among scores of grass-roots activists who have joined with the influential S.C. Coastal Conservation League to fight the project. The first phase would have 274 units. At one point, the project also included retail shops.

“We’re on the cusp of winning,’’ Hattler said. She and others contend the development project could alter the flow of groundwater the tree needs to survive, while also increasing congestion that could threaten the nationally acclaimed live oak.

In addition to DeMoura’s financial challenges, the project faces another potential hurdle. The city of Charleston is expected to review its support for the project this afternoon.

DeMoura has said he’s modified the apartment project numerous times to address environmental concerns — and he’s sure the project won’t hurt the tree, which is hundreds of feet from where the first building would stand.

By some accounts the Angel Oak tree has stood for more than 1,000 years, weathering massive hurricanes and serving as a gathering point for legions of Lowcountry residents, from Native Americans to slaves. The tree is more likely to be 300 to 400 years old, according to the city of Charleston and some arborists.DeMoura said that’s verified by at least four arborists.

Standing 65 feet high, the Angel Oak is best characterized by its gargantuan branches that, in some cases, are as long as 89 feet. The tree puts out enough shade to cover a small shopping center. Its trunk is 25-feet in circumference. Visitors from across the country stop to marvel at the live oak and picnic at the public park under its branches.

The tree is such an emotional symbol that a photographer snapped nude photographs of people at the Angel Oak as part of a national project to raise awareness about large trees.

Shahid said Monday she’s hopeful the project can be saved. But that depends on how quickly an administrative court agrees to hear a legal case by environmentalists against DeMoura and state regulators, she said. She hopes it will be heard by late February.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control earlier this year issued a water quality and coastal zone permit to move the Angel Oak apartment project forward. But the Conservation League and the grass-roots group Save the Angel Oak appealed. At Monday’s permit appeal hearing, Shahid said opponents of the apartment complex are trying to delay the case as long as possible. “The longer it takes to get to resolution, the more we’re serving their objectives.’’

“I know in my heart of hearts, from working in this field for 20 years, that these groups would like nothing better than to see this project fail,’’ Shahid said.

Conservation League lawyers Amy Armstrong and Michael Corley said the issue isn’t about DeMoura’s finances, but about the environment. “This fight is about protecting the Angel Oak and protecting water quality,’’ Armstrong said after the hearing.