Nettlesome sweet gums might be on the chopping block in Dorchester County

SUMMERVILLE — Spiky balls, or porcupine shells — that’s what people who step barefoot around the yard call them. There’s little argument that the prickly sweet gum fruit is a bane of an arbored homeowner’s existence.

Dorchester County Councilman George Bailey has asked to remove the tree from protection under the county’s grand tree ordinance. But now that the ax is out, council will take a sharp look at the ordinance as a whole.

Council members are concerned that the county has no dedicated inspector to handle the ordinance; members want to take a look at turning over inspections to a private contractor who would charge a fee. So council this week sent the request to committee.

Sweet gums are notoriously big trees, straight-up growers that can rise more 100 feet high and be more than 3 feet around. They thrive in wetland habitats and are found all across the Lowcountry. Their weak branches get snapped apart by winds and fall; their roots knob up on the ground and tangle lines underneath.

The grand tree ordinance has a choppy history of its own. A divided County Council passed it in 1998, one of a number of local governments that did at the time.

The law as it stands prohibits cutting any tree except a pine that has at least a diameter of 24 inches at chest level. There are a number of exemptions.

From the beginning it was controversial. Proponents called it good conservation in the midst a development boom when building lots were being cleared of trees. Opponents said it would impose an unwarranted burden upon individual property owners and development.

Council Chairman Bill Hearn, who was on the council then, remembers the restriction as one of those suburban/rural divides much like leaf burning. On the rural end of the county, he said,“people tend to want to make those calls themselves.”

That sentiment hasn’t gone away. Bailey said the request came from rural residents who complained of the law getting in the way of cutting down the nettlesome sweet gums that some consider nuisances like weeds.

The city of Charleston in 2012 removed the sweet gum from its grand tree ordinance.

Bailey, of St. George, makes no bones about his stance on the tree. “They’re a mess,” he said.



Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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