062618_DarienTree

Kevin Ondarza walks his dogs, Thor, left, and Dixie, right, along the base of the tabby wall at the Darien Oak. A developer says the oak will be saved during an upcoming construction project.

DARIEN—One of the city’s signature live oaks is, to use a timeworn adage, out of the woods after a developer completely flipped the design plans for condos, a restaurant and hotel on the waterfront.

Art Lucas, owner of Oaks on the River, sent his architect back to the drawing board after a decision to move about 100 feet from where a centuries-old live oak stands atop the tabby ruins at the top of the bluff on the Darien River. That is possible because Lucas decided to move a restaurant that was to have been on the eastern edge of the property to the opposite end and shifted condos to the eastern side farther away from what some call the Darien Oak.

“It’s huge,’’ City Manager Tim Sweezey said of Lucas’ decision. “I don’t see how he could do anything better, except do nothing at all.”

In this case, doing nothing is likely impossible in a county badly in need of employment-boosting development.

“We love that tree,’’ Lucas said, and it is especially important given that the development has oaks in its name.

Highly regarded arborist Roger Ditmer had examined the tree and said it would likely have survived under the original design that would have had condominium structures 45 feet from its base. But Lucas said he wanted to be certain that he had covered every possibility and took Ditmer’s advice and brought in a second arborist to do a more comprehensive study.

The second arborist used air to blow out a trench and unearth some of the roots at what would have been the edge of construction, he said.

“The roots were pretty healthy where we were going to put our building,’’ Lucas said.

The arborist said the tree could survive, but there was also the possibility the tree could die in three to eight years, Lucas said.

That was a risk Lucas said he was unwilling to take and he went beyond the second arborist’s recommendation.

“He said anything around 70 feet would be good. We’re at 100,’’ he said.

That doesn’t remove all the worry because there is also the possibility the tree could just reach its age limit and die naturally, but Lucas hopes not.

“Maybe it’ll live another 100 years,’’ he said.

As for the restaurant, it will be about 4,000-square-feet and include that structure that was, until recently, the McIntosh County Industrial Development Authority office by the U.S. Highway 17 bridge over the river, said Louise Hooper, a real estate broker for Lucas Properties.

Lucas said he will have to expand the development authority building and there will be a deck overlooking the river, bridge and the docks.

The roots of the old tree spill over the highest of a couple of tabby walls on the property, and Cooper said those historic walls will also be protected. Buddy Sullivan, a coastal historian, will help develop signs explaining the history of the ruins, she said.

In changing his plans, Lucas also defused what had been a growing furor over his plans to build in an area many thought too close to the prized oak. His change in plans is possible partly because he bought more property east of the development authority land. He also bought a jelly ball processing facility, which is moving to the industrial park, and George’s Boatyard on the easternmost edge.

Wally Orrell, the retiring executive director of the authority, said of George’s, “That’s going away.”

The ire over the tree wasn’t directed solely at Lucas’ plans. Some blamed the authority for making a deal to sell the property in the first place.

Although Lucas’ original design would have likely worked, Orrell and his replacement, Dawn Malin, say the redrawn plans have been well received.

“These are very positive developments,’’ Malin said.

Not only will the oak be saved, the new layout will also save some work for the city, Sweezey said.

A water line that would have had to have been relocated can stay where it is, he said.

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