Grand trees deserve protection

This live oak tree was preserved for a subdivision developed on James Island. (Wade Spees/File)

There are many reasons the City of Charleston has ordinances to protect trees: their beauty, their important environmental role, the homes they provide for birds and other animals and their cooling shade.

Often there is only one real reason developers want permission to cut them down anyway: The trees are in the way of their plans and the profit those plans are expected to generate.

The city's zoning ordinance says variances from the law may be granted if the owner proves that saving them would render the piece of property unusable. Making less profit isn't an adequate reason.

Yet month after month developers appeal to city government for permission to chop down trees that its ordinance calls for protecting. On the agenda for Wednesday's upcoming city of Charleston Board of Zoning Appeals meeting are applications to remove 45 grand trees (24 inches in diameter at breast height, excluding pine trees) and three protected trees (eight inches or more). They are on Johns Island and James Island, in West Ashley and on the peninsula.

Tim Keane, director of planning, preservation and sustainability for the city, said just because applications are submitted does not mean permission is granted. Indeed, he said, he regularly hears complaints that enforcement of the tree ordinance is too tough.

For example, a request to remove three grand trees on Folly Road across from the Publix shopping center will not get staff's stamp of approval. One of the three oak trees is in bad shape, so Mr. Keane said staff will agree that it may be removed. But not the other two.

City staff is still analyzing the requests, but it appears that applicants for two projects on River Road on Johns Island are being asked to find ways to save some of the trees they have requested removing. Two requests are associated with projects at Bolton's Landing. One is being deferred because staff thinks more trees can be saved. As for the other, staff supports two of the four requests to remove grand trees.

Of course, the Board of Zoning Appeals doesn't have to accept staff's recommendations. And it is still wise for people who value trees, and who know that a grand tree can take decades to grow, to be vigilant.

The Live Oak Society in Lafayette, La., says an oak can add an average of 1.5 inches to its girth each year. Older trees grow more slowly.

"Members" of the society are trees that are at least 100 years old and have a girth of eight feet or more. Generally speaking, it takes an eight-inch live oak 60 more years to qualify for membership.

Thankfully, there are still trees that qualify for membership locally - and not just the Angel Oak and the Middleton Oak.

The laws protecting grand trees recognize their vital contribution to the landscape of the Lowcountry. As developers lay out their plans to alter that landscape, they should be restrained from turning those grand trees into firewood or sawdust.

As the Charleston area grows, and development increases, more trees will be in jeopardy. It is important that the law is foremost in the minds of city officials as they decide on the persistent wave of requests to remove trees.