Amid making plans for memorials, flag poles and landscaping, the supporters of Huger Park know the future of the project hinges on protecting the site’s signature feature — 10 centuries-old live oaks.
But construction around the three-acre park has left the trees vulnerable to wind and lightning, and traffic near the site has "adversely" impacted their root systems, according to an arborist’s analysis of the oaks. That’s forcing Horry County staff to search for ways to protect the trees and preserve the scenic area.
“It was a critical concern,” said Ashley Cowen, a senior planner with Horry County Government. “Without the trees, you don’t have the basis for why the park was put there.”
The site for Huger Park sits just off Carolina Forest Boulevard near the county recreation center. It’s surrounded by a growing subdivision called The Parks, which spans more than 400 acres.
On Oct. 31, arborist Todd Stephenson of Total Tree and Lake Care examined the trees with county staff. Stephenson determined the trees are healthy, but he noted that their root systems are being affected by the nearby traffic, which is compacting the soil. Homes in the subdivision are under construction and there’s also an amenity center being built nearby.
“That the trees were healthy and vigorous after all of the environmental changes and construction related impacts they’ve been subjected to is a testament to their hardiness,” Stephenson noted in his report. “However, their good appearance is, in all likelihood, associated with them using their stored energy reserves to compensate for water and nutrient uptake lost to soil volume and root space elimination. Left unchecked, those impacts can be reasonably expected to eventually drain the stored energy reserves of the trees to a point where they will be unable to replace them.”
Stephenson also expressed concern about the trees being the sole high point in the area. Cutting down the surrounding trees made the live oaks more susceptible to wind damage and lightning strikes, according to the report.
“Their exposure to wind and lightning is now significantly higher that it has ever been,” Stephenson wrote. “For the trees to remain healthy, they will need to have their root systems restored and protected. Additionally, they will need to be protected from high wind and lightning to which they are now far more prone. … It is now reasonable to expect them to be lightning struck on a regular basis.”
In order to protect the trees, Stephenson recommended stopping all traffic and removing construction material from the areas closest to the tree. He also suggested linking the trees with support cables to stabilize them during high winds and installing a lightning protection system.
How the county will protect the trees is still being decided.
Last month, a group of area residents, county staff, historians and other park supporters gathered in Carolina Forest to discuss developing a master plan for the park.
“Everybody referenced that report,” Cowen said. “People were concerned about how much of the budget they would use towards going to [the suggestions in] that report.”
The county has set aside $169,000 for the park.
The park is named for Revolutionary War Gen. Isaac Huger (pronounced You-gee), who owned 1,000 acres off what is now Carolina Forest Boulevard.
Nine years ago, Joe Garrell donated five acres for the park. Garrell, who died in 2018, was a member of the Lemuel Benton Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Local historical societies are working with the county on the park's master plan, and representatives from those groups are talking to their national organizations about supporting Huger Park through a memorial, benches or some other gift.
Although the park was originally five acres, county officials agreed to a land swap with the developer of The Parks in 2018. In exchange for two acres, the county received two of the 15 acres it acquired adjacent to the Carolina Forest Recreation Center.
The developer also agreed to pave the road to the park and improve access, as well as install lighting along the road and provide a pedestrian path from the park to the rec center.
The main area of the park — which consists of the circle of 300-year-old live oaks — now has a fence around it and two picnic tables sit beneath the oaks.
County officials had said they expected the park to open this year, but on Tuesday Cowen said there’s not a definite timeline now. She said the county is waiting to hear about the historical societies’ ideas before moving forward in preparing the plan.
Ideas for the park range from a granite memorial honoring locals who fought in the Revolutionary War to plaques telling the history of the Huger family to signs describing the county’s role in the conflict.
“We will incorporate whatever they have to offer into those master plans,” Cowen said, referring to the historical societies.
Kevin Kiely, a Carolina Forest resident who sits on the county’s Parks and Open Space Board (which is helping design the park), said he’d like the county to study whether locals will use the park or if it will be primarily a spot that residents of The Parks visit.
“It’s a relatively small area,” he said, pointing out the property has limited parking. “If people from outside the area decided to use this as an amenity … I can anticipate an issue there. … The big unknown is how many people will actually use this.”
Knowing how much demand there will be for the park can help the county get the best use out of its limited funding, Kiely said.
“There’s definitely financial constraints,” he said.
Pam Dawson, another member of the Parks and Open Space Board, said the county should promote the park to locals.
“It’s beautiful, a truly unique environment,” she said. “I really do think it could be a destination for people once they’re aware of it.”
Regardless of what features are added to the park, Cowen noted that protecting the trees remains of the utmost importance.
“That was definitely a priority,” she said.