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An appeal of an issuance of a construction permit stopped efforts by developers to take down this landmark live oak on 12th Street in Port Royal, South Carolina as seen, Thursday, Aug.11. There are two landmark live oaks on the parcel, which is divided into five lots. Efforts to save the second tree are ongoing, and the Port Royal Zoning Board of Appeals will decide the fate of this tree. Photo by Tony Kukulich/The Island News.

Appeal halts removal of landmark live oak

By Tony Kukulich

The day after the Town of Port Royal issued a building permit, chainsaws were lopping limbs from the trunk of a landmark live oak estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old. But a last-minute appeal brought the effort to a halt.

The tree is one of two landmark live oaks that town residents have been trying to preserve since a building permit was requested for the property they occupy. Nearly a dozen and half residents spoke in opposition to issuance of the requested permit during a crowded public hearing early last month. A petition with more than 300 signatures to save the trees was presented during that meeting.

The parcel – located on the north side of 12th Street between Paris and Madrid avenues – is subdivided into five individual lots, On Tuesday, Aug. 9 the town approved a building permit for three of the lots, which allowed for the removal of the smaller of the two trees.

The larger of the two oaks measures 60 inches in diameter, while the smaller oak has a 43-inch diameter. Because both trees have diameters in excess of 24 inches, they qualify for the designation as landmark trees and are afforded special consideration under the town’s tree ordinance.

With the necessary permit in hand, efforts to remove the tree began Wednesday morning. All of the limbs on the lower two-thirds of the tree were removed, and a small wedge was cut into the base of the tree before Port Royal resident Elizabeth Bergmann started the process to appeal the town’s issuance of the building permit.

“I (am) writing to urgently appeal the permit granted on the 12th Street lot for the removal of the landmark oak,” wrote Bergmann in her note addressed to the Town of Port Royal and Town Manager Van Willis. “The cutting of this tree is happening at this moment, north lot between Paris and Madrid. I request you immediately halt the removal and grant me the option to formally appeal the process.”

The issue will now go to the Port Royal Zoning Board of Appeals. The board is expected to take up the issue next month. Until then, no further work on the tree is allowed.

While town officials were well aware of residents’ concerns over the trees, Port Royal Mayor Joe DeVito said officials opted not to announce that the permit had been issued. Doing so, he said, would have deviated from the town’s procedures.

“We don’t announce every permit that’s issued,” he said. “If you do it, then from here on out you have to do it.”

Beaufort-based CHS Coastal Homes and Sunrooms (CHS) is developing the property, but they are not the property owners. According to information on the CHS website, four of the five lots have been sold.

According to Town Manager Van Willis, the developer had provided everything necessary to secure the building permit, and not issuing the permit could have created a liability for the town. To avoid litigation the town issued the permit and engaged in an effort with the developer to preserve the 60-inch tree.

“It did become apparent that a permit was going to be issued, so at that point, our priority shifted to saving the larger of the two trees,” Coastal Conservation League South Coast Office Director Jessie White said. “Ideally, we want to save both. That is the preferred outcome. But saving one is also better than saving none. That’s the analysis that we were undergoing.”

DeVito discussed the approach with four individuals who were actively involved in the preservation effort.

“The question was; are we looking to save both or are we looking to save one,” DeVito said. “The consensus among the four people was that saving one was a win.”

It’s unclear how or if the filing of the appeal will impact CHS’ plan to preserve the 60-inch oak.

“I had severe concerns that (the plan) was in jeopardy,” DeVito said. “I’ve worked with the property owner and the developer a little bit more since this all started, and they’re still pursuing coming up with some sort of agreement or arrangement with those two property owners to save the tree. That is still something we’re moving toward. The appeal process definitely hampered it, slowed it. But, this is the right of the citizens and this is the right way to do it.”

CHS did not respond to requests for comment.

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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