Plans to cut down landmark trees in Port Royal draws swift public reaction
By Tony Kukulich
A developer’s plan to cut down two landmark live oaks in downtown Port Royal has the town council stuck between a proverbial rock and hard place.
Public sentiment strongly opposes the request to destroy the trees, while government policy precludes the council from playing a role in the decision to deny or approve the developer’s request.
The town does have a tree ordinance ostensibly to protect landmark and specimen trees. But there are concerns that ambiguity in the language of the ordinance could complicate the decision-making process.
Beaufort-based CHS Coastal Homes and Sunrooms (CHS) is developing a lot on the north side of 12th Street between Madrid and Paris avenues. The lot was initially subdivided into four parcels, but was reconfigured with the town’s approval into five parcels.
The lot currently supports two live oaks estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old. One tree measures 60 inches in diameter, while the smaller of the two 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.
“As submitted, the contractor and the property owners would need to remove those two trees to build the houses they want to build,” said Town Manager Van Willis.
A map of the lot on the CHS website shows the property split into five adjoining parcels, each measuring approximately 30 feet wide and 100 feet long. Four of the five parcels are indicated as having already been sold.
There has been a significant public outcry over CHS’s plan to remove the trees. Residents filled the town council chambers on Wednesday, July 6, and nearly a dozen and half of those in attendance spoke out against the plan.
“The impact of removing significant trees that add to the character of the area needs to be seen as something that potentially – even though it’s a death by 1,000 cuts – reduces property values for everybody,” said Chris Marsh during the public comment portion of the meeting. “The uniqueness of Port Royal is one of the things that keeps this community being so highly desirable.”
Decisions of this nature are generally not in the purview of the town council. Instead, they fall to the responsibility of town staff.
“That’s typically something that’s handled at the staff level,” Willis said. “It’s state policy, it’s the way we’re governed, that that’s not something they would typically do.”
After hearing public comments during the July 6 meeting, the council met with legal counsel in an executive session to discuss its options. The outcome of that meeting has not been made public.
“There is no way really in our current policy and procedure to put it in front of council right now,” said Mayor Joe DeVito.” That’s how we’re at the point that we are. What’s going to happen tonight is we’re going to talk to our legal and say, ‘What can we do?’ What is our path forward if we choose that the right decision is to save the trees, which we all understand and want to happen, or are there other options to do so?”
Jessie White, South Coast Office Director for the Coastal Conservation League, noted that her organization worked with residents and town officials in 2018 to strengthen the town’s tree ordinance. That work led to the version of the ordinance that is currently in place.
“The underlying purpose and intent of the tree ordinance was to prioritize tree protection and the valuable public benefits that stem from retaining those trees,” White said. “It’s important when you’re reading the tree ordinance to understand the baseline in interpreting the language that’s included there is to protect the trees. That’s why language is specifically included that requires reasonable design alternatives shall be explored to preserve those trees.”
DeVito noted that CHS’s request to cut down the two landmark trees was the first test of the town’s updated tree ordinance. Both White and DeVito said that there was likely some room to improve the language of the town’s tree ordinance, and DeVito said the council was committed to doing that. Despite apparent ambiguity in the ordinance’s language, White held that sufficient grounds to deny the permit existed.
“In considering the context and purpose of the tree ordinance, again, tree protection, the existence of reasonable design alternatives and the guiding principles of the comprehensive plan, we believe the design of the 12th Street lots as currently proposed, including the removal of landmark trees, should and can be denied,” White said.
Willis said the town was waiting for two additional required submissions from the developer.
“Once we receive those two things, the staff will evaluate those,” Willis said. “We don’t have those in hand yet, so we can’t make any comment as to what we’ll do until we receive that information.”
CHS Coastal Homes and Sunrooms did not respond to a request 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.