Recent land clearing in the Murrells Inlet area has understandably drawn concerns from community members about tree removal for new development. The site plan for the commercial development in question was approved prior to the enactment of the most recent amendments to Georgetown County’s tree ordinance, meaning the most recent regulations did not apply.
Staff investigated the site and noted that while the tree removal was proceeding as approved by the Zoning department based on the previous ordinance, no tree protection was in place as is required by the Zoning Ordinance. Work was then stopped on the site until this could be corrected. The Stop Work Order was lifted once staff verified that adequate protection was in place.
Georgetown County values its natural resources tremendously, as do most residents. The results from the county’s recent Land Use Element survey showed that 96% of respondents placed the most importance on our area’s natural resources. Planning and Zoning staff, along with County Council, also place a high value on these resources including our specimen trees. Trees prevent soil erosion, help moderate storm water runoff, help prevent air pollution and provide a habitat for wildlife.
That is why Council approved much needed revisions to the Tree Regulations section of the Zoning Ordinance late last year. The previous ordinance allowed for removal of trees for “reasonable use” of a site, which could mean large parking areas for commercial developments or the maximum amount of density for a residential site. Tree replacement requirements were only based on the amount of open space retained on a tract after buildings, parking and other impervious areas were removed which did not encourage the protection of existing tree canopy or a reduction in impervious surfaces.
The new ordinance provides more stringent requirements for the Waccamaw Neck area. It not only reduces the size of what is considered a “grand tree” from 30 inches DBH (diameter breast height) to 24 inches DBH – thus requiring the protection of more trees – but it also prohibits the removal of such trees for commercial developments and the installation of new infrastructure in residential subdivisions. For these projects, grand trees cannot be removed without applying for a variance to the Zoning Board of Appeals. This will require developers to design their projects around the existing trees.
A second major improvement to the ordinance involves the preservation of existing tree canopy on a site. A site must maintain 10 trees or 100-inch DBH per acre based on the number of existing trees at the time of development. This should allow for the protection of tree canopy while still allowing for careful development of a tract.
Both of these improvements were made after careful review of tree protection ordinances from other jurisdictions, including Charleston County.
While it is unfortunate that the newest regulations did not apply to this recent development, we look forward to better tree enhancement moving forward based on the recent changes that were approved by County Council.