A rule change that would make it easier and less expensive for developers to cut down pine trees was debated by North Charleston officials again on Thursday, and clearly remains controversial.

"If it ain't broke, why are we fixing it," Councilman Ed Astle asked.

The proposed change would exempt all but very large pine trees from city regulations that require developers to either plant more trees or pay money to a city tree-planting fund, when they cut trees down.

For large developments, the rule change could greatly reduce tree mitigation costs, as well as the expense and time needed to survey the existing trees. Only pine trees 20 inches in diameter at chest height or larger would be subject to the mitigation rules, which apply to other trees eight inches in diameter or larger.

Mayor Keith Summey, who was not at Thursday's council meeting, proposed the change several months ago, saying that existing rules are unfair to developers.

The initial proposal was to exempt all pine trees from protection. A revised plan would have exempted trees under two feet in diameter, and the latest version sets 20 inches as the standard.

The city's Planning Commission has rejected them all, recommending that City Council do the same.

On Thursday several council members criticized the proposed tree ordinance changes, while none defended them.

"The problem is, the public wasn't dissatisfied with the ordinance we have now," Councilman Bob King said. "There was nothing wrong with the ordinance to begin with."

Councilman Ron Brinson, running the meeting in Summey's absence, noted that there are multiple kinds of pine trees, and the ordinance makes no distinction. Planning Commission member James Kramer made the same observation at a February meeting.

While undeveloped land may typically be populated by Loblolly pine, a fast-growing tree known as a staple of the pulp-and-paper industry, the area also supports Longleaf pine, valued as wildlife habitat.

"Longleaf pines are lovely trees," said Brinson. "Some parts of the city also have Japanese black pines."

The next step for the proposed ordinance change is a City Council committee meeting March 20 at 5 p.m. in City Hall. A vote to settle the issue could come at a subsequent council meeting.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552