101217 Trees: Apartment developer faults county and engineer for cutting
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Trees shown in bold, black and gray lines on the Waterleaf plan.

Trees: Apartment developer faults county and engineer for cutting

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

An error by Georgetown County led to the cutting of 70 trees that were supposed to be protected as part of a buffer at a Murrells Inlet apartment complex, according to a partner in the project. The company is ready to go to court if the county tries to enforce a $13,500 fine by withholding certificates of occupancy, said Paul Aiesi, a partner in Graycliff Capital of Greenville.

The county planning office determined that 71 of 83 trees along Wesley Road were cut earlier this year at the Waterleaf project where 240 apartments are being built on 41 acres. In May, the county charged Graycliff $13,500 “tree removal fee” based on 27 trees at $500, the maximum fine in the tree ordinance. It gave the company credit for 44 trees that will be replanted as part of a buffer.

“This is what makes me absolutely irate,” Aiesi said. “We stepped in and agreed to use our money to deal with the mistake that the county made.” He estimated the cost of the buffer between $20,000 and $30,000.

“There was meeting after meeting after meeting discussing which trees would be saved,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. “There’s no way they didn’t know what was to be saved.”

The mistake that the county made, Aiesi said, was in approving a set of plans for Waterleaf that didn’t show that the trees along Wesley Road would be saved. “Our grader cleared exactly what the county approved,” he said.

The Planning Commission approved the project on the condition that the grading plan come back for final review to show which trees would be saved. According to a letter from the project’s engineer, David Gantt, submitted to the commission in September 2016, the plan “depicts the trees to be saved and trees to be removed. We have been especially sensitive to the perimeter area along Wesley Road, maintaining the majority of the oak trees along this corridor.”

The approved grading plans on file with the county show a few trees marked with heavy black lines and a notation that they are to be saved. Trees with black lines are to be removed. A third set of trees, those closest to Wesley Road, have gray lines and no notation.

But there is no plan that shows a buffer. “We had no problem leaving the buffer,” Aiesi said. “The plans the civil engineer drew did not include the buffer and the county approved that plan.”

“The civil engineer should have had it in there. The county should have caught it,” he added.

“We were assured that those grayed trees were not going to be cut,” Johnson said. “It is true that they didn’t draw another plan.” The county is revising the tree ordinance. Johnson said the county may need to require color coding.

The tree cutting was discovered in January by Holly Richardson, the senior county planner. “The grading and drainage plan we have dated 10-20-15 do [sic] not show these oaks along Wesley Road to be removed,” she wrote in an email to Gantt, a principal in G3 Engineering.

“We have reached out to the owner to pass along your concerns,” Gantt replied. Gantt said this week he wanted to talk with his client before discussing the Waterleaf project.

After the $13,500 fee was charged to Graycliff, Aiesi and another partner, Seth Peterson, met with Johnson and Richardson. The partners argued that the fee should be charged to G3. “Engineer of record admitted in our March 29th meeting with the County, that he personally misrepresented to the County that a tree buffer was included in the final planset, when in fact it had been removed,” Peterson wrote in an email summary.

Aiesi said that was the last he heard of the issue until it was reported last month that the fine was a record one under the tree ordinance and that Johnson suggested to the Planning Commission the certificates of occupancy wouldn’t be issued until it was paid. “If they delay us in any of our COs, there will be legal action,” Aiesi said.

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