Anger sprouts over tree ‘butchering’ West Ashley dispute raises questions about grand oak protection

The branches of three live oaks that once reached out from 15 Broughton Road to 13 Broughton Road were lopped off at the property line. About two dozen branches were cut.

Those driving down Broughton Road in West Ashley’s upscale Crescent neighborhood can see a tree-trimming job some describe as “shocking,” “a butchering” and “absolutely hideous.”

The three affected oaks are rooted on the property at 15 Broughton, where homeowner Donald Wathne said he is considering legal action and also said he may tie yellow bows to the shorn limbs and shine spotlights on them at night.

The sawed-off limbs face property owned by plaintiff’s lawyer David Hoffman, who said his involvement in the pruning was “nonexistent,” except to approve landscape architect Robert Chesnut’s plan for his yard and to ensure Marshall Badeaux of Charleston Tree Experts had the city’s approval.

Meanwhile, the city of Charleston has photographed the trimming and is talking to those involved, a process that could take another week, principal planner Eric Schulz said.

“We’re still looking at it,” he said, “and we’re having our legal department looking at case law” involving property owners’ rights involving trees that aren’t growing on their property but have branches that extend over it.

The city’s ordinance prohibits the “abuse” of grand trees, and that’s defined as “any action which does not follow good arboricultural practices.”

Van Atkins, a certified arborist who has worked for 46 years, looked at the work at a neighbor’s request and called it “not pruning but a butchering.”

Atkins criticized the linear cuts because several limbs were left to rot with no growth at their ends, a large part of the canopy was removed and the work left the trunk vulnerable to sun damage.

“They can probably recover, but they’re going to look like the dickens for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s just a blight on that area there, with such devastation done to it.”

Badeaux strongly disagreed and said not only will the trees be fine, but there’s also an Italian term for this type of treatment: espalier.

“It’s for definition of the property, to bring in sunlight, to create a solution with the way that tree was dominating over their yard with the other trees,” he said.

Ledlie Bell, a neighbor, called the pruning “shocking” and questioned if the city’s tree ordinance was strong enough if it couldn’t prevent this type of thing.

“If it turns out that the lawyers for the city say, ‘We can’t do anything,’ then we would ask is there a big hole in the city ordinance?” she said. “The whole intent of the ordinance is to protect grand oaks wherever they are.”

Wathne said Hoffman had asked for a letter in support for a zoning variance that he was seeking last month for a garage addition, but Wathne declined. And the city’s Board of Appeals-Zoning unanimously rejected it.

Wathne, who described the pruning as “absolutely hideous,” thinks it was done for revenge, but Hoffman said his landscaping plans were in the works since June 2014.

“I’m going to determine if there is any potential long-term damage to the trees,” Wathne said. “I just don’t think you can let somebody get away with doing this just for spite. Nobody in their right mind does this.”

The work also wiped out all of the crape myrtles and azaleas along the property line, and both neighbors plan to build fences.

Badeaux said he is familiar with these kind of arguments, as his crews have been cursed and photographed by angry neighbors before.

“You encounter these problems with the wealthy all the time,” he said. “It seems the more money they’ve got, the more neighbors like to (mess) with each other. And it’s really sad. These (Hoffmans) are good, nice folks. They just want their landscaping in their yard.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Previous versions of this story incorrectly identified Charleston Tree Experts.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.