WADMALAW ISLAND — Murry Thompson wasn't supposed to chop down a bunch of large trees on his property last summer without Charleston County's blessing.
He knows that now, especially after having paid almost $12,000 in fines so far for not asking.
But because of Thompson's mistake, at least two dozen poor families living on the islands will keep warm in the wintertime with firewood derived from the illegally hewed trees.
Volunteers from Rockville Presbyterian Church and Rural Mission gathered wood from Thompson's property this weekend. The faith-based nonprofit on Johns Island has been teaming up with the church for years to provide firewood for families in need each winter.
"This is a Godsend," said Anderson
Mack of Rural Mission. "Although it started out as a situation that was not good, it's going to go to a good purpose."
Mack said they had never harvested that much wood at once and that about 25 families will be supplied firewood from it.
Simon Black of Rockville Presbyterian said they read in the newspaper about Thompson's run-in with the county and hoped he might be willing to donate the wood.
Thompson agreed. "I was delighted to help out any way I could," he said. "I'm trying to make this come out well."
Trouble first started for Thompson in late August after county planning officials received complaints from residents about several large trees being cut down along Rockefeller Road.
At issue is the county's laws against grand-tree removal, which say permits are required to cut down trees at least 24 inches in diameter when measured at chest height.
County officials found 44 grand trees were illegally cut down, though Thompson later hired a forester who counted only 22 trees. Thompson said he and the county have since settled on 23 trees.
A county planner had called the incident the largest violation against the county's codes protecting grand trees since the laws were enacted after Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.
The landowners involved were fined about $1,025 plus restitution for each hewed tree found on their property. A Johns Island tree service company also was fined.
The total charged was $46,125 plus possibly restitution if the courts see fit.
Thompson accepted responsibility for any violations since he had the trees downed as part of his self-motivated conservation project. He said he wanted to restore the land to its natural habitat where wildlife such as quail and deer once flourished.
Thompson had planted a forest of longleaf pines with native warm-season grasses and plots of sunflowers, sorghum and millet in hopes that the project would be picked up by national conservation efforts. The Lowcountry Open Land Trust might also approve next year his application for a conservation easement.
Thompson said negotiations with the county are still under way, although he already has paid about $12,000 in fines plus legal fees. "I've run out of money," he said. "I have no more money to pay for lawyers. I have no more money to pay for fines. ... I'm pleading for mercy."
On Saturday, about two dozen volunteers — all men representing Boy Scout troops, a handful of area churches and other service groups — sawed, stacked and hauled off the remnants of Thompson's error.
But the work is far from done.
Greg Dixon, a local carpenter who attends Rockville Presbyterian, said they need volunteers to help split the wood into small pieces. Youth groups are welcome, he said.
Dixon said they had just enough wood for families this year but that the supply was running low. "Now we don't have to worry about all next winter," he added.
Black said the firewood is available to any family in need. "You don't have to go to church to get firewood; you just have to be cold," he said. "We'll deliver to anyone."