Planners move ahead with tougher tree rules
While Georgetown County continues to look for ways to protect trees from falling to new development, members of the Planning Commission are concerned that the ordinance lacks teeth.
The current fine for violations of the tree protection ordinance is $500 per tree. The county can also require mitigation, said Holly Richardson, the planning director.
She outlined a package of options to the commission last week that would expand tree protection.
“Are we going up on the cost,” Elizabeth Krauss, who chairs the commission, asked.
Raising the $500 fine isn’t among the options.
“I’m sad that we can’t have it more than that because the value’s in the tree before it’s cut,” commission member Sandra Bundy said.
Richardson said the county is limited by state law in the fines it can levy.
The problems that she sees are primarily in the gaps in the existing ordinance. On the Waccamaw Neck, trees on property zoned for commercial or multi-family use can be cut with a permit if “no practical alternatives for the reasonable use of the property exist.” On those parcels, Richardson said, the need for stormwater ponds and parking areas lead to trees being cut.
Trees with trunks over 10 inches in diameter are considered protected on the Waccamaw Neck, with the exception of pines, myrtles, palmettos, Bradford pears and pecans. Trees with trunks of 30 inches or more are considered “grand trees” and get further protection.
One way to reduce cutting on commercial and multi-family tracts would be to require a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals for removal of any grand trees. That would mean the developments would have to be designed around those trees, Richardson said.
She also proposed reducing the diameter of grand trees to 24 inches, the standard used in Charleston County.
The goal is to “make preservation of existing trees on the site the priority,” Richardson said.
Another option, also drawn from Charleston County, would be to require preservation of 20 trees per acre, or any combination of trees that total 160 inches in diameter, including all grand trees. On property where the existing trees total less than 40 inches in diameter, new trees would have to be planted.
Richardson showed the commission some examples. At the second phase of the Waterleaf apartment complex in Murrells Inlet, where the developer is keeping more trees than the ordinance currently requires, even more trees would be retained by reducing the size of grand trees and adding the 160-inch minimum.
At a single-family development on Pawleys Creek, where three large oaks will be protected when 14 lots are created, a handful of other trees would be saved if the grand tree size is reduced to 24 inches.
“I’m looking to see if you feel like that’s headed in the right direction,” Richardson told the commission.
Krauss noted that there is a conflict between stormwater regulations and tree protection.
“We need to stipulate that regardless of whether ponds have to be built, trees would be preserved,” she said.
Bundy thought the ordinance would encourage keeping clusters of trees by setting a per-acre standard. That would result in healthier trees, she said.
She would like to raise the standard for replacement trees, which currently require that half come from the protected species.
“We have some really bad replacement trees right now,” Bundy said.
While the planning staff will work on adapting the ideas to the current ordinance, Richardson said the commission also needs to consider whether the county should require shade trees be planted around the perimeter of new developments and developments along Highway 17 in addition to the existing landscaping requirements for buffers.
She also wants the commission to consider whether live oaks should get special protection.
Although Richardson said she frequently hears from the community about tree protection, not all of it is positive.
“We get a lot of comments from developers and single-family owners about gum trees. They feel like they’re a nuisance,” she said.