On Johns Island, newly created gap in tree canopy raises residents’ ire
For three decades, Steve Green has passed through tunnels created by the sprawling oak trees that tower over many roads on Johns Island.
By the numbers
Homes on the Stono View Plantation at River and Fishland roads on Johns Island are expected to be for sale by spring 2014. About the tract:
165 homes planned
245 grand trees on land
177 are grand live oaks
6 grand trees to be removed
2 are red oaks
2 are maples
1 is a magnolia
1 is a live oak
Tim Keane, Charleston’s director of Planning, Preservation & Sustainability
The trees distinguish the island as unique and give it a claim to fame, he thinks. Its most renowned, the Angel Oak, has stood for perhaps 500 years.
So when developers knocked down a 49-inch-wide live oak across from his River Road home, Green and other residents fumed.
More than six years ago, Charleston city officials approved the cutting of the tree and two smaller ones a mile south of Maybank Highway. It was all in the name of a 165-house subdivision that later stagnated with the housing market’s downfall.
A developer recently bought the land and revived the project. But residents had all but forgotten about it until the saws, grinders and excavators revved up this week and poked a hole in the canopy.
“I knew it was going to happen eventually,” Green said. “I had seen the plans on paper, but when you see the grand old oak trees toppled within minutes, it’s very disturbing.”
The plight of Green and like-minded islanders writes the latest chapter in the struggle between developers, politicians and residents to balance urban growth with environmental preservation. But officials insist that developers will cut few trees, protect the ones still standing and plant others to mitigate what’s lost.
The tree removal incensed some residents, many of whom vented on the Facebook page for Nix 526, the group opposed to extending the interstate to Johns Island. They posted photos and comments berating Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who has pushed the Interstate 526 completion project.
“Citizens have the right to say what they want,” Riley said. “But the city works hard and carefully to develop the island in the most environmentally sensitive manner.
“What they’ve done in this case is extremely responsible.”
Tim Keane, who directs the city’s planning division, said the plans for Stono View Plantation included input from an arborist.
A survey of the 125-acre tract tallied 245 “grand” trees, defined as ones at least 24 inches in diameter. Only six of them, including one oak, were slated for removal to make way for homes or roads. Ninety-eight percent were spared, he said.
Critics suggested that 11 such trees were being slashed, a number that confounded Keane.
The grand oak cut down near the subdivision’s planned entrance along River Road was in the state Department of Transportation’s right of way, he said. It was diseased and largely rotten at its base.
After an arborist examined the oak, Keane said, it had to be removed for the safety of motorists driving by. A storm could have easily blown it down.
“This left a gap in the canopy, so it’s understandable that people are seeing that and freaking out,” Keane said. “But most of the site planning had to do with protecting as many trees as they could. They did a pretty darned good job of it.”
‘Matter of when’
The master plan for Stono View Plantation garnered initial approval in August 2005 from Charleston City Council.
‘Matter of when’
During the next two years, city officials met and sorted out some of the details.
Green opposed the development from the start, he said. It’s likely to cause an influx of traffic on River Road — about 300 cars a day, he said — and he doesn’t think the two-lane street can handle it.
He’s also against widening the road, and a plan to add a left-hand turn lane would eat up at least 12 feet of his own property and the azaleas and camellias on it.
“People have to go to the meetings,” Green said. “Their government can be pretty sneaky ... and you have to dig through that information.”
Keane said the plan went through the proper procedures. Developers didn’t go about it “willy-nilly,” as some critics have suggested, he added.
In addition to the 49-incher, experts considered knocking down 60- and 50-inch-wide oak trees along River Road. But only one had to be taken out.
“Once that tree got surveyed and it was known that it was diseased, it was coming out,” Keane said. “It was just a matter of when.”
At the site last week, Cole Gaither drove his pickup through the large swath that has already been cleared. Mud clung to the truck’s tires.
Gaither is the developer.
He and his business partner had been courting the previous landowner for two years, he said. Though permits had been issued, the plan never came to fruition because of the economic recession.
They finally bought the property earlier this year, he said, at a reasonable price that will be passed on to potential buyers. The homes will offer access to the Stono River — a luxury not typically offered in a house under $300,000, he said.
Gaither lives just two properties south of the new community at River and Fishland roads, so he said he’s also concerned about how the area looks.
A hefty sum is being spent to protect the trees and nearby wetlands, he said. The community also will give a nod to surrounding habitats by incorporating hiking trails.
“We wanted to save as many trees as we can,” Gaither said. “Unfortunately, one of these was not going to make it.”
Workers bumped the tree with a piece of equipment, and it was so rotted that most of it tumbled down.
It’s not the first time trees have been the source of ire on Johns Island.
Communities planned on land adjacent to the Angel Oak, the multi-tentacle tree beloved to many, has faced stiff opposition. Such development could choke off the massive tree’s water supply, critics said — a theory that planners have long disputed.
But Samantha Siegel, who helps run the Save the Angel Oak website, said a movement to preserve trees and oppose the “constant threat of development” has largely succeeded.
“The largest oaks, all the trees are timeless,” she said. “They bring you back in time and make you feel like you could have been on that street in 1800.”
Marvin Wagner, the city councilman for the Charleston area of Johns Island, said he was mindful of residents’ concerns. But none of them had contacted him about their beefs, he said.
He vowed to listen, but he called for cool heads to prevail.
“There’s two sides to Johns Island: One is protecting it; the second is that it’s the only way the city can go for progress and development,” he said. “Weighing the two is a delicate issue.”
Many who have joined the cause share a disgust for extending the interstate’s reach onto Johns Island. But proponents of the I-526 plan think the highway could relieve traffic on other streets, such as River Road.
Thomas Legare, who runs Legare Farms about 5 miles to the south, helped ignite the hubbub over the River Road trees by posting on the Nix 526 Facebook page.
He lamented the prospect of a dense neighborhood on Johns Island, though the developer said that’s a way to avoid suburban sprawl.
While it’s too late for the River Road trees, Legare said he wanted to rally support and prevent similar removals. He said the grand oak could have been saved with a little care.
“It was a nice tunneled canopy along here,” Legare said. “And now it’s a big open gap. It looks hideous.”
Rita Bachmann lives across from the development. She stood on the roadside last week and got pelted with raindrops
Vegetation on the other side of the street blocks her home’s view of the construction — the only comfort she says she gets. But she worried that any widening of the road could claim that too.
And it’s all happening so quickly, she said. The developer plans to offer the first homes for sale in spring 2014.
“It takes 100 years to produce these trees,” Bachmann said, “and just a day to take them down.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.