Charleston has pretty strict rules about preserving its “grand” trees, but it also makes room for plenty of exemptions. For example, the Board of Zoning Appeals on Wednesday will consider five cases in which developers are seeking permission to remove grand trees or exemptions to the 15-trees-per-acre rule. In some cases, they want both.
On North Market Street, an investors group wants an exemption from the 15-trees-per-acre rule.
On Morrison Drive, the developer of an ultra-modern office building wants to remove one grand tree – defined as anything other than a pine that measures at least 24 inches across at breast height — and also wants to be granted an exemption to the 15-trees rule.
On Daniel Island, a developer wants to cut down one grand tree to make room for a new home.
On James Island, the developer the Cross Creek Shopping Center Two wants a variance to allow for a 12-foot landscape buffer, removal of two grand trees and an exemption from the 15-trees-per-acre rule.
Another grand tree would be cut down on a residential lot on James Island and another on a commercial lot at 1640 Meeting St.
It’s pretty routine stuff as such requests go. But it’s a good reminder that grand trees don’t just appear overnight. And while development is a sign of a healthy economy, which we all want, it’s up to all of us to ensure that these requests are scrutinized so some of the things that make the Charleston area so special don’t quietly disappear.
There also are practical reasons for preserving as many grand trees as possible. Live oaks take decades to mature, but once they do, they suck up as much as 50 gallons of water per day. That’s something for developers and city planners to consider, especially in flood-prone areas.
Housing developers would be smart to preserve more big trees to help absorb runoff. Instead of a grassy open space, why not a stand of shade trees?
About this time last year, a housing developer was granted a variance to cut down 22 grand trees (down from 39 trees originally requested) on a 61-acre parcel on Johns Island, while saving 102 grand trees. That’s not unusual, but that style of development probably won’t be sustainable as more and more of the island is developed.
At some point, the BZA will need to apply the brakes and nudge the developers of large housing projects toward plans that work better with the natural landscape. That includes preserving more native trees and building more water-permeable driveways.
Many new developments leave more than half of the land impermeable. That contributes to localized flooding and necessitates more drainage infrastructure, both of which could be diminished by saving and planting more trees.
Residents concerned about tree preservation in the area’s various local jurisdictions can stay informed about removal and exemption requests through public meeting agendas. In Charleston, many are noted on the agenda of the Board of Zoning Appeals-Site Review.
It’s up to everyone to make sure progress doesn’t come at the expense of what makes Charleston unique.