To cut or not to cut

Ary Fun, owner of Ary Fun Tree Service, in the process of removing a decayed and towering water oak in West Ashley’s Moreland neighborhood.

The big water oak standing just 10 feet from John Dimitri’s house provided plenty of shade but also caused him great concern in the three or four months he had lived there.

Dimitri thought far more about its decay and when it might topple than any benefits it provided. His situation was disquieting.

“It had a huge cavity in its base and an intense hurricane season was predicted,” he says.

The trees in his Moreland neighborhood faired comparatively well during Hurricane Hugo, but he thought it best to apply to the City of Charleston for a permit to remove the 46-inch diameter water oak before a storm appeared on the radar.

“I knew the city had regulations regarding what you can or can’t pull down,” says Dimitri. “I knew that ultimately I’d have to get somebody to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ ”

All but a handful of jurisdictions in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties have tree protection ordinances. Charleston and Dorchester also have county ordinances protecting trees.

But, ordinances do vary.

The city of Charleston and some other local governments require a permit from their zoning department before cutting down a tree 24 inches in diameter or larger at breast height (41/2 feet above the ground).

Summerville, which has a much stricter ordinance, requires a permit to cut down trees that are 6 inches in diameter or greater at breast height.

The ordinances also usually dictate how much of a protected tree, or grand tree, can be removed without a permit. In addition, they provide for penalties to be imposed if a protected tree is cut down or altered illegally.

Dimitri contacted Eric Schultz, principal planner in the city of Charleston’s department of Planning Preservation and Sustainability. On his visit, Schultz determined the tree could be cut down and issued a permit on the spot.

City permits are free.

Dimitri then interviewed several tree services and requested cost estimates before hiring Ary Fun’s Tree Service. He also considered quotes for removal of the tree, which stood at more than 30 feet. Estimates ranged from $1,300 to $2,000.

“I was surprised none of the neighbors came with a pitchfork,” Dimitri says jokingly. He grew up in the neighborhood and says they are passionate about their trees.

Two officials with the city of Charleston offer insight into trees, ordinances and urban forestry.

Eric Schultz is the principal planner with the city of Charleston’s Department of Planning Preservation and Sustainability.

Q: How many calls per week do you get from homeowners who want to cut down or alter a tree?

A: We are averaging between 10 to 15 residential calls a week. They are more frequent during the hurricane season.

Q: When might a home owner be granted a permit to cut down a grand tree?

A: If the tree is hazardous tree, meaning it has a structural defect because of decay or being struck by lightning, or it has a severe lean and is a risk to a nearby target, it can be cut down.

Or, if the tree is causing structural damage to the habitable residence and there is no other remedy. If those two standards cannot be met, staff will deny the permit.

Q: What happens if a permit it granted?

A: I carry permits with me (and fill them out on the spot). They don’t cost a dime. The homeowners must post them on the property in a location visible from public right-of-way.

Q: What happens if the permit is denied?

A: The homeowner can appeal the decision before the Board of Zoning Appeals site design, which meets the first Wednesday of the month. The (letter of ) appeal would have to be in 28 to 30 days in advance of the board’s meeting. The burden is on the homeowner to have a more detailed analysis done (by an arborist) and submit the results for the appeal.

Q: What steps can be taken to remedy a problem caused by a tree short of removing the tree?

A: The city does not have an ordinance against pruning a grand tree. We do ask that you hire a professional if you don’t know how to properly prune a tree.

Q: How is the tree protection ordinance enforced?

A: Any time we get a complaint, we will react to the complaint. If we find there has been a violation, we will issue a summons. I don’t think in this past year that I have written a summons, in other years, two or three.

Sometimes we just try to work out a mitigation plan with the homeowner. If a tree has been unlawfully removed, we can ask for up to three times the size be planted.

Q: Will a homeowner be fined for unlawful removal of a tree?

A: A judge can do that under state law. You can pay a fine plus mitigation as well.

Danny Burbage is the city of Charleston’s superintendent of urban forestry.

Q: What alternatives are there to cutting down a tree?

A: When there are limbs damaging a house, it’s much easier, less expensive and better environmentally to prune the tree rather than to remove it.

Q: What should a homeowner do about tree roots that invade pipes?

A: It is uncommon for roots to get into pipes unless there is a leak in. Roots don’t go searching for water; they grow where water is present. On rare occasions a large root might cause a pipe to burst, but that’s infrequent. In 90 percent of cases, the pipe damage would not be because of the tree.

Q: Are some trees more likely to present challenges to a homeowner than others?

A: People erroneously think that large trees, like a live oak or elm, are more prone to causing damage than other trees. That is not necessarily the case.

If the roots of a crape myrtle or maple happen upon a leaking pipe and nutrients, they are going to grow. They can invade the pipes as much as larger trees and cause as much damage.

Q: What if a plumber advises removing a tree because it damaging pipes?

A: If he has staked out the pipe and finds roots, he’s right to caution the property owner. But you don’t have to cut down the whole tree to solve one pipe issue. And if you cut off a tree’s roots, you might kill your tree and still have a leaky pipe.

Q: Is it OK to cut some roots?

A: That’s the point where you need to consult with a good arborist. It depends on the species of tree and its general health and vigor as well as the viability of the rest of the root system. In general, with a healthy tree, you could consider removing two or three roots and it wouldn’t cause a problem.

Q: Are there trees that should be avoided under certain conditions?

A: If you have a low wet property and you have cypress trees or maples, you are more likely to have problems because they are genetically coded to grow in wet areas.

Q: How can homeowners plant trees with a eye toward avoiding future problems?

A: You need to plant the right tree in the right place. Generally, you don’t want to plant a tree with a wide canopy too close to your house unless you are willing to take the responsibility for keeping it pruned.

Also, keep an eye on the root system to make sure roots are not growing toward the foundation.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.