At issue: Can pruning ever amount to ‘abuse?’

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

A tree service and a landscape architect face two violations each in connection with a controversial tree pruning job that sliced a few dozen tree limbs right down the property line in The Crescent neighborhood in West Ashley.

And the ultimate outcome of their cases could set a precedent for thousands of homeowners and arborists across Charleston — one that clarifies if trimming trees can ever be considered “abuse” punishable under city law.

The city cited Charleston Tree Experts and landscape architect Robert Chesnut for two violations each of abusing grand trees in connection with their work on two live oaks, city attorney Susan Herdina said.

Charleston’s tree ordinance prohibits the abuse of grand trees, which is defined as “any action which does not follow good arboricultural practices.”

Chesnut and Marshall Badeaux of Charleston Tree Experts worked for the owner of 13 Broughton Road when they trimmed limbs of trees rooted in the soil next door.

At least one arborist called the work a “butchering” and said it’s wrong to prune trees straight down a property line rather than at the nearest juncture. A sawed-off, leafless limb eventually rots, weakening the tree. These trees are expected to live.

Charleston lawyer Paul Thurmond, who is representing Chesnut and Badeaux, said they were unable to get the neighbors permission, and it’s debatable if the pruning crossed any legal line.

“I feel very confident that I’m going to put up an expert who will say very clearly that this is not abuse,” Thurmond said. “Aesthetically, there is no question it is not appealing. However, when you have a neighbor who chooses to not participate ... ‘aesthetically’ is no longer the main desire.”

Badeaux said tree limbs and roots crossing a property line can be considered a nuisance, “and homeowners and property owners do have a right to maintain their property and protect them from nuisances. Many courts have ruled that time and time again.”

Thurmond said there’s a second issue in the case — even if the pruning can be considered abuse, the city had approved the work.

Property owner David Hoffman, who hired Chesnut, has said his team had the city’s approval, and Badeaux agreed.

“I’m being painted as the bad guy here when I wouldn’t have done it without his (city principal planner Eric Schulz’s) approval,” Badeaux said.

But Herdina said the city did not issue a permit for the trimming.

“There was a general conversation with one of our city employees, but this particular work was not authorized and would not have been authorized,” she said.

Hoffman said in a statement Friday there are two sides to every story, “so (I) am sure these highly qualified men are eager to tell theirs to a legitimate fact-finding body.”

Each citation carries a maximum penalty of $1,092 and 30 days in jail. Both are expected to request a jury trial when Livability Court hears their cases Monday.

Thurmond said he will seek a pre-trial conference in hopes of avoiding a trial, which he said would be a waste of taxpayer money. Instead, he said City Council should amend and clarify its ordinance if the city intends to regulate pruning.

“This has put a very chilling effect on the tree trimming business in Charleston,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.