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Georgetown tree ordinance update could protect more trees from development

WassamassawSwamp (copy)

Bald cypress trees have been harvested for timber, and out-of-state developers propose to destroy nearly 13 acres of wetlands in Wassamassaw Swamp, eradicating wildlife habitat, compromising the area’s capacity to withstand major storms and further transforming the New Hope community in once-rural Berkeley County. Provided/S.C. Coastal Conservation League

GEORGETOWN — In light of the heavy development happening around Georgetown, specifically in the Waccamaw Neck, county planning director Holly Richardson is proposing updates to its tree ordinance to ensure more of the region's beloved forestry is preserved.

One of the main changes to the ordinance is a site inspection requirement before any ground is broken. Richardson said previously, tree site inspections would sometimes occur in tandem with stormwater site inspections, but not because of any written requirement. Making it a requirement to have specific tree site inspections will ensure less foliage is cut down sooner, Richardson said.

Other amendments include adding in a tree fund, which would fund landscaping, public parks and the replanting of trees in the county from fines developers pay for various violations, such as cutting down unapproved trees.

Professor of forestry at Clemson University William Conner said replanting saplings in areas where mature trees were cut down is better than nothing, but not exactly an equitable practice.

Mature trees take in a significant amount of water, and in an area that floods like Georgetown, that intake is vital in preventing flooding, Conner said. Saplings cannot take in the same amount of water, and also not every sapling planted will survive to maturity, Conner said.

"A lot of these young trees, because they are not maintained or taken care of those early years, get to be misshapen, animals damage them or people damage them when they're doing their landscaping, lawn mowers and weed eaters," Conner said.

Richardson also is proposing lowering the size definition of a Grand Tree. If a tree is at least 30 inches wide four feet up from the ground, it is considered a Grand Tree under the existing ordinance and cannot be taken out for subdivisions, multifamily or commercial developments. The proposed ordinance would lower that number to 24 inches.

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Grand Trees in the Waccamaw Neck can be taken out, but only with a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals, Richardson said. This is because most of the development pressure currently is happening in this area.

A local nonprofit called Keep It Green said it has heavily familiarized itself with both the current and proposed tree ordinances. Over the years, Keep It Green has organized to protest several zoning changes and developments across the county, some of which have been successful, it says.

Vice Chairman, Beverly Sullivan, said she has spoken a lot with Richardson and the planning staff about the proposed amendments to the tree ordinance, and while she is happy positive changes are being made, she's concerned with how they will be enforced.

"(The county) doesn't have the staff to do the enforcement that's required," Sullivan said.

Richardson said while the county and planning department does, in fact, enforce the existing tree ordinance, the new ordinance is being workshopped to do just what people like Sullivan want to see: strengthen enforcement.

"There are some cases where people get out there, cut a tree and don't get a permit, and it's hard for us to know what was removed," Richardson said. "We just have to work within the ordinances that we have, so that's why we were proposing this amendment: to give us a little bit more teeth when it comes to saving existing trees."

The tree ordinance will be up for discussion at the next Georgetown County Planning Commission meeting May 20.

Follow Demi Lawrence on Twitter @DemiNLawrence.

Demi Lawrence reports on Georgetown County for The Post and Courier. She graduated from Ball State University in 2020, and previously was an intern at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana and Indianapolis Monthly.

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