The majestic Angel Oak, which has survived hundreds of years, has now survived what might be its toughest chapter of all: Politics.
A win for the Angel Oak is a win for the entire community, which treasures the massive tree as a symbol of strength, beauty, diverse history and resilience.
The short take is that Tuesday night, Charleston County Council wisely agreed to spend $2.4 million of rural Greenbelt money to help purchase 17 acres adjacent to the Angel Oak Park. Otherwise, the tract could be densely developed.
But the path to this point is as gnarled as some of the oak’s spreading limbs, and the story is not over yet.
In order to take ownership of the property, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust has to raise $1.2 million. It kicked off its fund-raising campaign under the oak tree on Wednesday.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley says he will ask City Council to contribute $250,000 — a substantial first step toward that goal.
If the fund-raising is successful, it is likely LOLT would try to arrange for an adjacent lot of about the same size also to be purchased.
Just acquiring the first tract would go a long way towards buffering the Angel Oak from potentially harmful development. Purchasing the second tract would mean the tree is protected on all sides and hundreds of housing units that may now be built there — with their noise, run-off and traffic — would not be built.
It would be one more victory in the long history of the Angel Oak. An earlier victory occurred when the city of Charleston bought the Angel Oak from a private developer in order to conserve it and ensure its accessibility to the public.
Ironically, it was an ill-conceived city plan that put the tree in danger later. The area adjacent to the Angel Oak Park was zoned for dense development.
Much of the momentum to protect the oak has been powered by Samantha Siegel, a Johns Island resident who started a grassroots campaign to “Save the Angel Oak” and did everything she could to stop the development.
The would-be developer failed.
Then conservationists, who were suing to stop the development on environmental grounds, began work towards purchasing half the developable property.
County Council needed to play a key role, but some members were angry about the city’s zoning, which drove up the price. They stipulated that the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (not the city) manage the property. And initially, they considered requiring PRC to be the owner of the property as well. Members wisely dropped that proviso because it would have prevented the LOLT from seeking aid from the State Conservation Bank.
County Council initially wanted to require five acres of the land to be given to the Homeless Veterans to farm, but PRC agreed instead to let them farm at nearby Mullet Hall, an equestrian park. Farming on the Angel Oak tract would have required taking down five acres of trees.
Now, the focus can be on helping the Land Trust meet its fund-raising goal. The deadline is but 60 days away.
The Angel Oak belongs to the people. That includes those who live on Johns Island, those who cherish their families’ historic connection with the Sea Island icon, and the thousands of families, school groups and individuals who have visited it. That number also includes the 11,000 people who joined “Save the Angel Oak,” from across the nation.
Angel Oak lovers need to contribute generously to protect the landmark for generations to come.
Contributions can go to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust (marked for the Angel Oak Park), 43 Wentworth St., Charleston, S.C. 29401. Or online at LOLT.org or Angeloakpreserve.com.
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