Another round of debate

Supporters of a development project near the Angel Oak, which is hundreds of years old, say the tree won't be damaged. Opponents fear for the tree's well-being.

Supporters and opponents of the latest plan for a large residential and commercial development adjacent to Charleston's Angel Oak Park on Johns Island are preparing for the latest skirmish in the years-long controversy, when the plan goes before a city panel at 5 p.m. today.

The Commercial Corridor Design Review Board will be considering the height, scale and mass of buildings proposed in the development, but not the main issues that have motivated opponents, namely the development's proximity to the ancient Angel Oak tree in city's small adjacent park.

The nearest structure would be about 500 feet from the tree, which opponents fear could be damaged by the project.

The development formerly known as Angel Oak Village — the name was changed to Sea Island PUD because of the controversy about the tree — has the support of city staff and officials, and a number of prominent arborists have concluded that it will not harm the Angel Oak.

"The Angel Oak is not threatened as currently proposed and could actually be better off in the long run," said Kim Coder, a professor of tree biology at the University of Georgia, in a recent evaluation.

Developer Robert DeMoura said Coder, past president of the International Society of Arboriculture, was not compensated for the opinion, which he said concurred with other arborists consulting on the development.

The development includes a plan to relocate the parking area at Angel Oak Park so that it would be a greater distance from the tree, which is why Coder said the development could help the Angel Oak.

Opponents, led by Johns Island resident Samantha Siegel, have been unimpressed with arborists' reports, and have tried to slow the development plan at every step.

Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care, a Civil-Rights-era nonprofit group that used to own the land, had long-standing plans to develop the property, but sold the land several years ago for $3.5 million as part of a bankruptcy reorganization plan.

Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care stands to profit from the development, under an agreement with the developer, and has said plans to include some affordable homes in the development will help Johns Island residents.

The 42-acre development is planned in two phases, and only the first phase is up for review at the meeting today at 75 Calhoun St.

The Coastal Conservation League has been pursuing a plan to use county greenbelt funds to purchase the roughly 22 acres planned for the second development phase, but the developers have not agreed to sell, and it's not clear that county funds would be available.

The first phase calls for a complex of one- to three-story buildings on roughly 20 acres of land, most of which sits behind existing businesses on Bohicket Road at Maybank Highway. The site also includes land along Maybank Highway.