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Environment: No permit required as owner cuts down live oak

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When a towering live oak tree estimated to be at least 200 years old was cut down in Murrells Inlet last week, some residents were outraged.

“It was at least 5 feet across at the base,” said Bill Chandler, an inlet resident. “I liken this to cutting a huge redwood in California. Cutting a 200-year-old tree just because you want a swimming pool is absurd. It’s ludicrous. It’s a travesty.”

Clearing the way for a swimming pool is the reason Chandler said he was given for the tree’s removal. He called the county planning department and his County Council representative when he found out late on a Wednesday night that the tree, on a property at the corner of Flagg Street and Bend Avenue, was scheduled to be cut the following morning.

Chandler was even more upset when Georgetown County officials told him the property owners were within their rights to cut the tree under revisions County Council made to the county tree ordinance last year.

Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said he initially thought the tree was protected, but he realized the council had changed that. He went to the site, but said there was nothing he could do.

Changes to the ordinance lifted limited restrictions in place for homeowners, including a requirement that property owners get permits to cut trees within setbacks on residential properties.

The original draft of the

ordinance submitted by the Planning Commission required residential property owners to get a permit to cut down protected trees anywhere on their property, but council members said the requirement would have been too much of a burden on homeowners and county staff.

 Johnson recalled that property owners associations in some neighborhoods also objected to the restrictions.

“I didn’t know the county ordinance would allow this to happen,” Chandler said. “It ought to be a light bulb going off to everyone on Waccamaw Neck. If you have live oaks in neighborhoods by you, they are in jeopardy of being cut.”

A work crew moved equipment onto the Flagg Street property early last Thursday morning and by about 8 a.m. workers were already in the tree cutting limbs, which were being chipped. The tree was about two-thirds gone by 1:30 p.m.

“We understand the ordinance and everything, but it’s very sad,” said Hobie Kraner, an inlet resident who pushed for stronger tree protection rules last year. He’s part of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which worked with the Planning Commission on its draft of the changes.

Chandler doesn’t know the property owner, he said.

“The house was up for sale. I don’t even think anybody has moved in and the neighbors don’t know them.”

Efforts to track down the owner through property records were unsuccessful.

When the tree ordinance was being revised, Jeff Kinard argued against eliminating restrictions for homeowners. He was chairman of the Planning Commission at the time.

“It’s a fundamental issue of fairness,” Kinard said. “Why apply a rule to one group of citizens and not another? You could cut down a tree on residential property, but if you owned a business you would have to put your parking lot around that tree or mitigate.

“I never could figure out how a tree was more valuable on business property than residential property,” he said. “The ordinance should apply all the way around, especially for certain trees. A live oak, to me, is the emblem of our area more than a palmetto tree or anything else.”

Chandler acknowledges there are some trees that need to be taken down, but said live oaks should be protected.

“To me there is a huge hole in our tree ordinance,” he said. “The reason people come down here is because of the soft environment created by the trees and the live oaks. For people to come in and wantonly destroy the aesthetics and attractiveness of the area, that’s something everybody on the Waccamaw Neck needs to be concerned about. Those trees, you can’t put a price on them. They’re our treasures.”

County Council Member Jerry Oakley, a Republican who represents the Murrells Inlet area, said he personally thinks its “very sad” to see a live oak of that age and size cut down.

“But it is the owner’s right,” he said. “Council’s decision was to exempt single family residences and I will always support the decisions of council.”

Oakley was on the subcommittee that recommended the changes to the ordinance to the full council. The subcommittee was chaired by former Council Member Glen O’Connell.

Council Member Bob Anderson, succeeded O’Connell, a fellow Republican, and wasn’t on council when the revised ordinance was approved, but he agrees with the decision that was made.

“I think the tree ordinance is right where it ought to be,” Anderson said. “If you have a beautiful tree on your property and you’re damn fool enough to cut it, it’s your right.”

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