041317 Environment: County seeks path of least resistance to save oaks
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Environment: County seeks path of least resistance to save oaks

Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County officials say they hope to save a group of oak trees along the road to Stables Park, but it will take cooperation from the neighbors along Petigru Drive.

The county plans to pave the dirt portion of Petigru Drive between Martin Luther King Road and Aspen Loop in Litchfield Country Club to improve access to the park. The state Department of Transportation is due to start work this year on a $925,000 improvement of the intersection of Petigru and Martin Luther King to provide turning lanes.

The original paving plan called for the road to divide around a stand of oak trees, but to do that required an easement over the adjacent property. The tract is heirs property, land where there is no clear title.

Condemnation “would take months if not years to get through the court system,” County Council Member Steve Goggans said.

The county’s engineers are now proposing a bend in the road that would take it closer to the River Club. That would save three of the five largest oaks, including one that is over 4 feet in diameter, Goggans said.

“We need the neighbors to be on board,” he said. “It’s going to come down to, what do you value?”

The county has already obtained easements over River Club property for the paving project. The property is part of the Litchfield by the Sea Community Association. “Last I heard, they were going to take those trees down. I would hate to see that. So would everybody,” said Tom Leis, the River Club resident who serves on the community association board.

But the issue for adjoining property owners is that shifting the road away from the oaks would eliminate any buffer between the houses and the road. “There’s absolutely no room for any buffer,” Leis said. That’s because there is also a pond between the houses and the property, which he said could raise concerns about erosion.

“There are ways to mitigate concerns with planted buffers and heavy landscaping,” Goggans said. Shifting the road around the trees would also create a curve that would serve to slow traffic once the road is paved, he added.

The road project was the subject of public meetings last year. Goggans expects another will be scheduled to present the new design before work begins.

“I don’t see why they don’t condemn it,” Leis said.

County attorney Wesley Bryant said the county could condemn the sliver of property it needs for the road and place the money from an appraisal with the court for distribution. “Time is the major issue,” he said. Bryant is also concerned with future complications because it would be difficult to notify all the heirs.

Shifting the road work toward the River Club is “the path of least resistance,” he said.

David Gundling, an attorney, and Guerry Green acquired other property along that portion of Petigru Drive for Old Kings Highway LLC by buying fractional interests and asking the courts to approve a sale. “I can’t imagine they could condemn a property without notifying all the heirs,” he said.

He and Green were able to acquire interests as small as 1/720th, according to court records. “We spent a lot of time to find the heirs and make good-faith payments,” Gundling said. There are shortcuts, but “I don’t think that’s right or fair,” he said.

The oaks that are threatened by the paving project are just a few of many that are on the adjoining property, owned by the heirs of James Keith. Gundling researched the property with an eye toward acquisition. He was able to trace many of the heirs of James Keith, but not his brother. Those heirs, known and unknown, could be notified by publishing a legal notice in the newspaper. If the county goes to that trouble, it should look at saving other portions of the Keith property with oak trees, Gundling said. “You hate to cut those oaks,” he said.

Petigru Drive isn’t the only project where oaks and asphalt collide. The county is also working on a plan to improve Grate Avenue, the road to the Pawleys Island Recycling Center. That road takes a jog to the right around an oak on the corner of Split Oak Place.

“I’m not sure if there is alternative to cutting the tree,” Goggans said.

Ray Funnye, the county Public Services director, is doubtful.

A public meeting on the plan, which will include sidewalks, is being scheduled for next month.

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