When Glynn County began discussing an ordinance to protect St. Simons Island’s trees, some stately oaks were still mere acorns.
Then as now, some said the first proposed protection fell short or went too far. Some wanted only publicly owned trees protected while others wanted the rules extended into other people’s backyards.
“If I can see it when I drive by, I ought to have a say in what you do to that tree,’’ a speaker at a public meeting said at the time.
Glynn County is taking another run at it with a proposed amendment to Section 264 of the county’s zoning ordinance. If adopted, it would at long last preserve trees on private land, notably the live oaks that provide the prized tree canopy.
It also requires developers to submit tree plans while requiring the retention of at least 25 percent of sites as open soil for tree development and 12 large canopy trees per acre.
The Islands Planning Commission voted Tuesday to recommend the Glynn County Commission deny the proposed ordinance. The Mainland commission voted to recommend approval. The full county commission is expected to consider the matter at its meeting today.
Not only are the basic requirements of the ordinance not groundbreaking, compared to some others, it barely scratches the surface, according to a state-employed arborist.
Joe Burgess, a certified arborist and senior forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission, keeps track of tree protection measures and advises local governments on local ordinances.
“There’s 155 or 156,’’ Burgess said of the most recent count of such ordinances. “There’s all different varieties. Some just protect public trees. Some tell you what you can do on your own property.”
They range from “sticking a toe in the water” to full immersion, and the latter is when problems come up, he said.
The ordinances often conflict with private property rights, and that, Burgess said without a hint of irony, “is a tough nut to crack.”
“When it comes to protecting trees on single family lots, a lot of [local governments] exempt those,’’ Burgess said.
Some measures of the proposed St. Simons Island tree ordinance may apply to single family lots.
Many developers take the easy way and clear cut lots, big trees and all, and start over planting small trees.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Burgess says, “I’d like to say they don’t believe there’s a different way to do it,’’ especially with small lots.
“When you get below a quarter of an acre, it’s really hard to save trees,’’ Burgess said.
With lots of 7,000 square feet, builders may leave trees standing, but they damage the root structures with foundations and driveways, he said.
“You can save the tree trunk, but you’re not saving the root system,’’ and the tree will eventually die, he said. “A lot of people treat trees like light poles.”
Glynn County’s proposed ordinance takes that into account first by laying out that the island “is particularly known and renowned for its mature live oak trees. Accordingly, preservation of such trees is deemed to be necessary and desirable.”
Any live oak 38 inches in diameter at breast height is considered a mature live oak and “shall not be removed,’’ without prior consent of the Glynn County arborist, the proposal says. Dead trees are sensibly exempt as are those dying from untreatable insect infestation, those damaged to the point they will die, those posing a safety risk and those causing adjacent trees to decline, among other things. It also lays out the bureaucracy for abiding by the ordinance.
Of protecting trees on private property, Burgess said some communities have set limits on impervious surfaces, and that leaves open ground to help preserve trees.
Glynn County will also consider “open ground’’ requirements around trees.
As he watches development around the state, Burgess said he sees more conservation of trees that are shared between quarter acre lots, and that has to do with the value of the trees themselves. Many developers of expensive real estate, like that along the coast, apparently don’t always take that into consideration, Burgess said.
“A lot with a significant live oak, or whatever the species, is sometimes 10 percent more valuable. That’s a lot down there,” he said of the enhanced value.
There is often conflict over tree ordinances, and Burgess said it often results when people do what they think is best.
“I expect developers to extract the highest value they can out of the land. I expect the government to protect the environment,’’ he said.
Of all the tree ordinances in Georgia, the strictest is in Savannah, but Chatham County also has protections.
Dennis Goldbaugh, the Chatham County arborist for more than 30 years, said there are solid reasons for protecting trees, including aesthetics and water quality, but trees also figure into comfort.
“Everybody talks about global warning,’’ Goldbaugh said. “Urban heat islands are an entity that can be measured.”
Without trees, paved parking lots and buildings store up heat from the sun all day and then radiate it at night, he said.
“That’s why it’s 80 degrees during the nighttime.”
But that’s not all: It has been shown that having leafy green trees and grassy parklands put people in better frames of mind and contribute to the general wellness.
Chatham County’s goal has always been a 50 percent tree canopy, but Goldbaugh said he never believed that was achievable.
Across Calabogue Sound in South Carolina, Hilton Head Island has its own tree protection administered by Rocky Brower, the town’s acting forester.
Instead of setting a number of trees per acre, Hilton Head developers must have 900 caliper inches of trees per acre. That’s calculated with caliper measurements at breast height.
“That’s an incentive to keep what you’ve got,’’ and incorporate it into landscape plans, Brower said. “They’re not real happy about it. It’s easier just to come in and clear cut.’’
The complaints have fallen off because abiding by the town’s land management and tree protection ordinances have become just a part of doing business on Hilton Head, he said.
Indeed, chambers of commerce asked for comment on their local tree ordinances declined or didn’t even bother to return calls.
That cost of clear-cutting can be pretty steep, however, if a developer has to mitigate for taking down a healthy tree.
“They’re not in the business of taking down trees because they know they have to put them back,” he said.
Complaints about the tree ordinance don’t all come from developers. “There are letters every day saying we’re not doing enough to protect trees,” he said.
In Savannah, development isn’t the point of conflict so much as redevelopment in historic downtown.
In administering Savannah’s tree ordinance, which Burgess calls Georgia’s toughest, Ted Buckley reviews 1,400 to 1,500 permit applications per year for the Greenscapes department.
As old structures come down, developers are moving in and rebuilding on small downtown lots and that endanger the trees along Savannah’s streets, he said.
They build “skinny little townhouses,” 22-feet wide, three stories tall that sell for $750,000, Buckley said.
Many look out on nice, century-old trees that are part of the attraction to buyers.
“I have to make sure they’re not doing any damage to a city tree. Trees are important to the tourism industry,’’ he said.
Buckley also cited the role trees play in cutting down on the creation of heat islands.
Developers can build up to the property line and within eight to 10 feet of a historic tree, but Buckley said he has to ensure that the trees are protected.
“To dig a footer would take off 40 percent of the critical root zone,’’ and impact the structural integrity of the tree, he said. “I can’t allow developers to compromise a city tree.”
It has gotten to the point that arguing over the ordinance and asserting private property rights has become a sort of cottage industry, and Buckley said he believes it will eventually be tested in court.
But preserving trees can save developers money, such as a project on a lot with a tree that was classified as an “exceptional tree” under Savannah’s ordinance. The tree was in the middle of the lot and was in the way of the original plans. A later design, however, would keep the tree and the developer would earn tree preservation credits that could save $30,000 to $40,000 in required landscaping.
“It was that threat of (the oak) being declared exceptional that kept it off the development rolls before someone came along and preserved it,’’ he said.
Glynn County’s proposed ordinance also envisions a system of credits for preservation, but some of the more active developers on St. Simons are simply clear cutting everything and replanting.
That doesn’t always go over very well with the neighbors. Willie Sheppard lives off the east-west section of Mallery Street, which was formerly known as Proctor Lane. A developer recently took down a huge oak on neighboring lots.
Sheppard had mixed feelings.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it,’’ he said, but on the other hand, “That tree shaded half my house.”
People on St. Simons Island have always been willing to speak on behalf of trees, even if ill-informed. A few decades ago, Georgia Power Co. lopped some big limbs off a tree at the corner of Demere and Brown roads. There was an almost instant howl over the company’s destruction of an oak that must have been at least 250 years old.
But the problem was, it wasn’t even an oak. It was an invasive species, a camphor tree that been damaged by a deep cold snap. The tree survived and, live oak or not, is thriving at the corner.
Because it is a tree native to southern China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, it would get no protection under Glynn County’s tree ordinance regardless of the public outcry.