Resistance takes root amid plans to remove grand trees

These particular trees on James Island's Camp Road are not currently at issue, but a Charleston zoning board met Wednesday to determine the fate of dozens of others like them on James and Johns Islands. File

It was standing-room only Wednesday night as residents crammed together to voice their concerns and disapproval over the requests by developers to remove several trees from sites across the Lowcountry.

The city's Board of Zoning Appeals, in a nearly five-hour meeting, considered seven requests for the removal of 34 grand trees and three protected trees for developments, mainly on James and Johns islands. Two requests asking for the removal of 11 grand trees were deferred to a later date.

The board approved for 19 of the total 37 requested trees to be removed, including the three protected trees. The board did not approve removing a grand tree on Clements Ferry Road for the development of a Dollar General.

The city's zoning ordinance protects grand trees, defined as being at least 24 inches in diameter about 4 feet from the ground, from being cut down without the board's permission. The board considers the existing trees' impact on the overall property and can require property owners to plant new trees for every one cut down.

Residents from impacted neighborhoods mostly spoke against the removal of all the trees, expounding about the history and ambience trees bring to the Lowcountry. A couple of people held up "save the trees" signs during parts of the meeting.

"The value of our oak trees around here is vital," said Ann Guerra. "How do you replace a several hundred year old tree?"

Some people were outraged over several of the requests and others were emotional in their appeals to the board to make the developers work harder to protect trees.

Mary Elizabeth Shoe expressed particular worry over the loss of seven grand trees on Harbor View Road for the development of the Stiles Point neighborhood - a request that ultimately was approved.

"Have you been over there?" she asked, explaining that her cat once got lost in the woods there. "It's really a beautiful and magical slice of little woods dropped right on Harbor View Road."

Another resident called it the last urban forest on James Island, nearing tears as she talked about the area's importance to her and others. Numerous people explained their love of growing up in the Lowcountry, saying that part of the experience was the trees, seeing them, playing in them and watching the Spanish moss "wave like feathers."

"They're not going to ever be replaced and this is what makes Charleston, Charleston," said Brian Dewhirst.

He also expressed concern over the neighborhood on Harbor View Road, telling the board that the ordinances were in place for a reason and that many residents viewed the committee as a place to go to get approval to cut the trees down.

"This is an opportunity for you to send a message to the community," he said. "I think what we're all here trying to say is that developers need to work harder (to save trees)."

Several developers at the meeting explained that they were already working hard to save trees.

"You need to realize what we go through to save what we save," said developer Merellene Ward. "Out of 30 trees (on the site), we're only asking to remove two - I think we did well."

Her request was to remove two grand trees on Roustabout Way for part of the Bolton's Landing neighborhood. The board approved her request to remove one tree and denied the other request.

The developer of the Stiles Point neighborhood also said he worked hard to save the trees, adding that of 73 on the property, only five needed to be removed, not including two for a water main issue.

There were hours of rebuttal, residents arguing that the trees were on the land first and that saving them should be a priority. The meeting was heated, and, according to Eric Schultz, the city's principal planner, was one of the most well-attended.

He applauded the community for their attendance and encouraged them to "stay interested," and to visit his office in the future to look over plans and become more prepared for meetings.

"We take Charleston trees very serious," he added.

Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.