Permits not obtained before Wadmalaw Island grands were cut

Forty-four grand trees were cleared on Wadmalaw Island without Charleston County's consent, and the property owner responsible could face fines of more than $426,000.

The incident marked the largest violation against the county's laws for protecting grand trees — trees more than 24 inches in diameter when measured at chest height — since the laws were instated after Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, Charleston County Planning Director Dan Pennick wrote in a memo to the county administrator.

The 44 trees had been cut down this summer on six properties on Rockefeller Road without the proper permits needed from the county. The property owners were each fined about $1,025 plus restitution for each hewed tree found on their land, but one landowner, a Mount Pleasant physician, accepted responsibility this week for any violations.

Murry Thompson and the other five landowners, along with the owner of Martinez Tree Service, appeared in magistrate court on Wednesday, where Thompson took accountability through his attorney.

Thompson's lawyer, Hamlin O'Kelley, said Friday that the trees were removed as part of a federal program to restore

wildlife habitats for quails, wild turkeys and deer that is sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The land was once a flourishing spot for wildlife but had been turned into farmland, O'Kelley said. Longleaf pines were originally there but had been cut down, he said.

Thompson and his neighbors wanted to restore the natural habitat, O'Kelley said, so they had the land cleared and planted 150 longleaf pine seedlings to replace the grand trees.

O'Kelley said the foresters and loggers doing the work did not mention anything to Thompson about seeking permits. "If he had known, he would have gotten them done," O'Kelley said.

Furthermore, he said, the trees that were cleared would have qualified for permits under the county's zoning laws if his client had applied.

Roy Martinez, the owner of Martinez Tree Service, said Thompson was responsible for acquiring the needed permits, not his company. The company was fined more than $1,000.

The court will revisit the matter in late November. Until then, O'Kelley said, they hired a forester to verify the number of trees that were cut down.

Thompson could face at least $380,000 in restitution fines, plus the $46,125 charged by the county, state and court for grand tree removal, though receiving the maximum penalty is rare. The court would make that determination.

O'Kelley said there have been no talks with the county about paying to replace the grand trees and that they hope the county will settle with the lesser initial fine.

Jean Bryson, one of the landowners involved, said she was relieved that Thompson assumed liability. County surveyors had found three hewed trees on what they thought was her property but later found the trees weren't cut down from her land, she said. Bryson could have been fined $3,075 plus an approximate $26,000 to restore the fallen trees.

Bryson said she was asked if she minded having some of the trees on her property cut down, but she said no. She was shocked at how many were taken down. "They said they didn't cut any live oaks, but my gosh, what they did cut," she said.