Oaks, magnolias face ax

This busy wooded stretch of Maybank Highway might buzz with even more activity as plans for an apartment complex take shape. The 22-acre parcel (at right) sits at the north end of Maybank, behind the James Island Shopping Center on Folly Road.

Wade Spees

Sixty grand trees -- live oaks, laurel oaks, magnolias and others -- might soon face the ax in the last wooded stretch of Maybank Highway on James Island. It would clear the way for 300 apartments, at least, in buildings set largely along the road.

The felling and proposed development have neighbors cringing and motorists worried about a highway that's already jammed with rush-hour traffic.

"I'd hate to see them cut it, and I don't know that we need another giant development on James Island. It's going to make that area even more congested," said Barbara Knight, former president of the garden club in nearby Riverland Terrace.

The apartment complex would be "one of the densest areas on James Island and the highest density along Maybank Road," said Katie Zimmerman, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.

An application to fell the trees will be considered by the Charleston Board of Zoning Appeals next week. A developer plans to build adult retirement apartments as the first phase of building on the 22-acre site; the site already has been largely cleared of undergrowth. The parcel sits at the north end of Maybank, behind the James Island Shopping Center on Folly Road.

Alerted by a nearby resident, staffers with the conservation league are reviewing the project and tree-cutting plans. The resident did not want to comment.

The league hasn't decided where it stands. That's because the development is proposed as a "gathering place" project, highly compact building that leaves open and protected land. The league champions that sort of building as "smart growth."

The 60 trees to be cut are among 107 grand trees across the 22 acres. The others would be left standing, most of them in "tree save areas" of 25-foot buffers along the back of the property facing the Cross Creek subdivision and Fleming Road.

League staffers are concerned that the development's preliminary plans don't meet standards in "gathering place" zoning, such as being suitable for walking or bicycling, and having access to mass transit, Zimmerman said.

"The sooner we can get out there and take stock of it, the better. It is really a lot of trees (to lose). The question is whether the trees are worth it if (the proposed development) doesn't have all the necessary 'gathering place' traits," she said.

The league is working with city of Charleston planning staff to look over the site later this week.

City staffers said they are satisfied with the plan.

"We typically don't want to take anything (to the appeals board) the city doesn't approve of," said Eric Schultz, principal planner. "We've worked very hard with the developers. I think the plan is good. I think (the developers) have really gone above and beyond to create some tree save areas."

No one from The Residential Group in Atlanta, the developer, or Seamon Whiteside and Associates, the local engineering firm working for the group, returned messages.

Grand tree removal in Charleston requires zoning variances or special exceptions, depending on the circumstances. Schultz said the board must determine factors, such as whether the felling causes a "substantial detriment" on adjacent property owners and the public good.