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Saturday, May 18, 2024

More tree protection on the table in Oak Island

Oak Island Town Hall. The planning board will consider new tree protections to recommend to the town council next month. (Port City Daily/file photo)

OAK ISLAND — Nearly two years after Oak Island threw in its hat to fight a state ban on tree ordinances, the town’s planning board is considering drafting a new protection overlay.

The item was on the agenda for the board’s Thursday meeting after planning board chair Dara Royal asked for the addition to the agenda. She shared an article on tree ordinances in North Carolina with the board and directed town planning director Matt Kirkland to investigate ordinances as well.

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“I was looking primarily at an overlay district as a way to preserve on either developed or undeveloped property,” Royal said, adding she was specifically interested in preserving trees over a certain size, yet to be determined.

Kirkland said he sent out a message to a statewide local government email list last month looking for information from those that use a tree overlay. An overlay can be used to apply additional standards to significant natural areas. He received two responses: from officials in Topsail Beach and Surf City.

Topsail has a maritime forest district, which Kirkland noted is different from what Royal is envisioning.

“Essentially what it does is, you can’t touch anything over 3 inches diameter at breast height within the setback,” Kirkland said, noting Surf city has a similar provision.

An overlay district could be applied to a portion of the town rather than the whole. Oak Island’s boundaries are unorthodox. Royal commented that any maritime forest on the island has been long-destroyed.

However, the town extends well beyond its beachfront. It controls large forested areas of land leading into the island, and to the northwest it annexed a handful of parcels, including 3,325 acres owned by DWE III LLC and Landane Enterprises LLC, also covered in trees.

Kirkland said the town’s comprehensive land use plan does not speak directly to a measure like a new conservation overlay. One of the town’s goals is to consider more protection for the tree canopy.

The town’s environmental advisory committee has been directed to examine the town’s ordinance addressing tree preservation. Recommendations, which are expected to go to the planning board next month.

Royal said the overlay could be considered without conflicting with the existing ordinances. She noted Oak Island is always concerned about its namesake live oak population and it could look to neighboring Southport and its existing live oak protections for inspiration. The town’s current large live oak stock is the product of people voluntarily preserving them.

“I think we need to focus more on preservation as a topic and education of future buyers and builders as far as what we as a community are looking for,” board member David Bradley said. “We can’t make it overly burdensome on the land owner to build or discourage development along the way when we do craft this.”

Bradley said he hopes a new ordinance can be beneficial for everyone involved.

There are some basic standards already in town ordinances, including a certain number of trees saved for a given lot size. It  varies from two per 1,450 square feet if a lot has sewer access and two per 1,625 square feet if it does not.

Areas such as stormwater retention ponds, which require all trees to be removed, require a developer to replant trees elsewhere on the property. Live oaks count double for replanting.

Lots must also have one specimen tree (14-inch diameter, 4.5 feet off the ground) for each 25 linear feet of street frontage. None of these regulations apply to oceanfront properties.

The move to consider more tree protection comes nearly two years after municipalities pushed back on a state bill that would have stripped local authority to regulate trees unless a local government was given express permission from the General Assembly. Oak Island and Bald Head Island each adopted resolutions opposing the bill at the time, which was backed by a construction industry lobbying group.

Municipalities in New Hanover County, which had codified authority to regulate tree removal dating back to 1987, opposed the bill on principle as well.

The bill passed the House and died in committee in the Senate.

This is not the only movement in the southeastern area from a government looking to adopt new tree ordinances in the wake of the bill’s failure. Leland tabled an ordinance to prohibit clear-cutting in response to the bill, but its town council now plans to vote on a new ordinance next month.

Any changes to Oak Island’s ordinances would need final approval by the town council.

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