Because some Conway officials don’t want the State of South Carolina telling them how to control their development when it comes to trees, Conway City Council agreed unofficially recently to compromise on its current tree ordinance.
The issue got the approval of the five council members who attended the workshop meeting; however, because it was a workshop the issue will have to be approved during a regular council meeting.
Conway has been reviewing its tree ordinance for the past year, according to Conway Deputy Administrator/Planning and Development Director Mary Catherine Hyman, who gave several members of her staff the assignment of studying other cities with the principal task of determining how much it costs in their locales to remove trees, what trees can be cut and how many can be cut.
But, Hyman told council before the vote that staff did not want to weaken its ordinance.
She said Conway is known for its trees.
“We all know trees are great,” she said.
The issue came to the forefront several months ago when local real estate agent Jimmy Jordan, who has been working with developers to build a development in Wild Wing for the aging.
After learning the cost of meeting the city’s tree standard, Jordan went back to council on behalf of his clients saying the cost of removing the trees that were needed to complete the development and building a stormwater pond pushed the price beyond a reasonable fee.
But now that a statewide tree ordinance has passed through the General Laws subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the S.C. House of Representatives this year and is expected to go to the legislature in its next term, the Conway council decided it needed to compromise and change its rules reducing its charges.
Now council charges for each tree that is cut based on its diameter at breast height and the type of tree to be cut.
City Administrator Adam Emrick pointed out that stormwater ponds aren’t required, that there are other ways for developers to handle their stormwater, but ponds are generally chosen because they cause a developer to lose the least amount of space where buildings can be located.
He said developers can mitigate the trees they cut by planting one tree for each tree cut in a buffer around the edges of a development or planting one tree for each tree cut somewhere else in the city.
In regard to the state ordinance, Emrick pointed out that it will prevent Conway from governing itself.
There was much discussion about the issue, but council pretty much accepted Emrick’s suggestion of maxxing out the cost of cutting trees at $4,500 per acre for commercial property. Residential costs will remain the same as in the current ordinance.
Councilman William Goldfinch has also gotten into this fray by pointing to his situation. He says he has a lot on Maple Circle left to him by a family member. To build a house there will cost him $15,400 just to cut the trees necessary to build a house.
Councilman Alex Hyman said the problem that he sees is developers clear cutting trees on their property and then annexing into the city where the clear cutting isn’t allowed.
But, he said, developers tell him they cut the trees to sell.
“I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to stop that clear cutting,” he said.
Goldfinch added, “I think we need to find some balance. My biggest concern is at this juncture, if we don’t do something the state legislature will do it…Let’s find some compromise so they’ll back down on the state level.”
Emrick suggested that if a developer clear cuts property the city could charge 10 cents per square foot, which comes out to $4,500 per acre.
Another option suggested by Emrick was for Conway to allow developers to mitigate their cut trees by allowing them to plant trees in the required buffers. They don’t get credit for that now.
They must plant trees that have a 4-inch diameter at breast height, “not just a stick,” Emrick said.
Councilwoman Jean Timbes said the whole issue scares her a little.
“I can see past mayors flipping over in their graves…our trees are our history,” she said.
She liked the idea of charging more to remove trees in areas that are prone to flooding.
Goldfinch said more people are now looking at developing their neighborhoods according to the conservation zones that allow homes to be built closer together, but have more open space and he thinks that might help.
According to Monday’s discussion the rules for single lots won’t change.
Hyman suggested that if people inside the city limits cut their trees without permission that they be charged 20 cents an acre for a maximum of $9,000.
Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy suggested 25 cents with a minimum of $4,500 or mitigation.
Hyman had suggested at a previous meeting that Conway charge a cap of $15,000.
She said the only other South Carolina city with a cap is Greenville and its fee is $25,000.
S.C. Rep. Jeff Jordan, who represents parts of Conway, said he is the person who introduced the bill at the state level because he doesn’t think a person should be fined for building on their own property. He sees the tree-cutting charges as a fine and thinks that isn’t right.
“I’m all for preserving trees, but there should not be a fine for you clearing trees so you can put your house on it,” he said.
He pointed to Goldfinch’s situation as one he thinks is wrong. Although he didn’t express an opinion on Jordan’s situation, he said Jordan did appear at one of the subcommittee’s tree meetings.
“What it would do is it would provide if you are a property owner that it would preclude a municipality from charging you for clearing your land. It’s my understanding there have been some very large fees,” he said adding that he’s heard of fees as high as $30,000 just to clear about an acre of property.
Johnson said his bill would still allow some trees to be protected. For instance, it will not allow developers or homeowners to cut landmark trees.
According to information found on the City of Conway’s website, Conway’s protected trees are flowering dogwoods, crape myrtles and redbuds, with a four-inch diameter at breast higher or greater; American holly, southern magnolia, red maple, bald cypress, river birch and sycamore, at 8-inch d.b.h. or greater; and all oak species at 14-inch d.b.h. or greater.
Johnson said the bill will go next to the House Judiciary Committee, then on to the full House, then to the Senate and then to the Governor’s desk for his signature.
He thinks, if the bill is successful that far, it will be sometime toward the end of the next legislative session, which is about one year away.