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Trees: County levies record fine for clearing
By Charles Swenson
A $13,500 fine has been issued to the developer of a Murrells Inlet apartment complex where 71 protected trees were cut earlier this year. It is the largest fine ever under the Georgetown County tree ordinance, according to the county planning director.
“They haven’t paid it, but we haven’t issued a CO yet either,” said Boyd Johnson, the planning director, referring to a certificate of occupancy.
Waterleaf was approved last year for 240 apartments on 41 acres between Wesley Road and Wachesaw Road.
In reviewing the project in the fall of 2015, the county planning staff noted that there were trees on the site protected by the ordinance and others that the developer proposed to cut. The staff pushed to preserve additional trees and the developer agreed to use “tree wells” that would protect roots from compaction when fill dirt was added to the site.
“Trees have been an item that we worked very hard to work around,” David Gantt, a principal in G3 Engineering, told the Planning Commission at the time.
The commission’s approval was contingent on a final review to make sure the project’s stormwater plan didn’t lead to additional trees being cut. That plan, presented in September 2016 showed “the majority of oak trees along Wesley Road to be maintained.”
In January, county staff looked at the site and found no tree protection was in place. Trees along Wesley Road that were supposed to be protected had been cut. Of 83 trees that were supposed to remain in the buffer, only 12 were left.
The county has charged the developer Graycliff Capital Partners of Greenville $13,500 based on 27 trees at $500, the maximum fine in the ordinance. It gave the company credit for 44 trees from a list of protected species that will be replanted.
The fine comes as Georgetown County is reviewing its tree ordinance. Johnson said his top concern is that it does not prevent developers from placing fill dirt over the roots of trees that cannot be cut, but which will die once the roots are smothered. His second concern is that the county stormwater ordinance is often at odds with the tree ordinance. Although both those issues appeared to be resolved at Waterleaf, Johnson said the developers blamed each other for cutting the protected trees.
In the case of The Colony, a 49-lot development on Highway 17 between Waterford and Prince George, the company that acquired the 21 acres for Lennar, a national homebuilder, asked the county to remove the requirement for a 10-foot vegetative buffer at the rear of the lots. It said the buffer created confusion when the lots were sold and the individual owners found they couldn’t cut the trees.
“In hindsight, we wish … the buffer had not been touched,” Johnson told the Planning Commission last week. That followed a plea from a Colony resident whose home backs up to a commercial tract on the highway that has been timbered. It is being advertised as an RV and boat storage site.
“We spent a lot of money on these homes and the last thing I want is a mobile home park in my back yard,” said Michele Boyle. “Please help us.”
Bill Renault, a Tradition Club resident who serves on the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations, said he was also concerned about the clear-cutting of the commercial lot. “I’ve seen this happen more than once,” he said.
Commission member Johnny Weaver, who is a real estate broker, said he represents the seller of the property. When it first came on the market, he contacted Lennar about the possible uses for a commercial lot next to its development. He said they told him “we don’t care about that property.”
The storage facility will only be temporary while the new owner decides what to do with the property, Weaver said. “It’s not going to be an RV park. It’s not going to be a campground,” he said, but added that it could be a high-traffic use such as a convenience store. “Lennar knew this.”
Johnson is currently studying tree ordinances from other communities. Most are similar to the county’s current ordinance in limiting the rules to commercial tracts and new development rather than existing single-family homes, he said. That has been a concern of some Waccamaw Neck residents who fear the loss of large “legacy trees” such as live oaks. Others say it impinges on private property rights.
Johnson is thinking about creating an “overlay zone” for tree rules that would apply to the Waccamaw Neck, but not to other parts of the county. “Waccamaw’s so different,” he said.
“There are a lot of beautiful oak trees around the county,” said Elizabeth Krauss, who chairs the commission.
“There’s nothing wrong with the ordinance we’ve got now,” commission member Freddie Hill, who works in forestry, said. “If it’s enforced.”
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