Georgetown County hones tree rules

Georgetown County Council is going out of its way to protect an important part of the county: trees.

At its meeting Tuesday, the county will consider for a second time strengthening its existing tree ordinance.

It's been a long build-up to this second reading.

A few years ago, the county issued a citation to a Hardee's restaurant for tree topping.

"They called it 'pruning,' we called it 'tree topping,'" said county attorney Wayne Bryant.

But the magistrate judge ruled the county's ordinance was not specific enough to determine the difference between the two terms.

That's when the county realized its ordinance had several problems, said county planning director Boyd Johnson.

He said the ordinance was not "user friendly" and did not have much protection for trees in the "buildable area" of developments, which leads to clear-cutting lots of trees that aren't anywhere close to buildings being erected.

The Georgetown Planning Commission worked on the ordinance for months before it was sent to the County Council, Johnson said. Once it got there, the council decided to send it to the Land Use and Tourism committee for further discussion and refinement.

"It has been a very long process," said Johnson. "But I think we're almost there."

He said the proposed changes provide much greater protection for trees.

For example, the new version of the law would limit the number of trees that can be cut down for development based on the square footage of the lot.

Johnson said that was the "main gain."

Councilman Jerry Oakley said trees aren't being protected simply because they are pretty.

He pointed out that more trees also help the city's stormwater issues.

At the last Land Use committee meeting, Oakley expressed concerns about the county's ability to enforce the ordinance, asking how the county would determine whether existing trees had been cut down and what it would do if cutting exceeded the allowed amount.

Various staff members proposed issuing citations and levying fines, and if those were ignored, further legal action could be taken.

But Johnson said he is confident all questions and concerns are addressed in the latest draft of the ordinance.

"The final committee meeting is to be Tuesday, and hopefully we'll get second reading at the [regular] meeting following that," he said. "We feel pretty good about it."