Sunday, August 14, 2022

New ordinance would prohibit removal of any live oak, ‘specimen trees’ in New Hanover County

Large oak trees like these adorn Dale Sutton's property in New Hanover County, but now he might have to remove several of the since the county did not grant him a variance for construction (Port City Daily photo/ JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Large oak trees could be getting some new protections if County Commissioners approve a text amendment at an upcoming meeting. (Port City Daily photo/ JOHANNA FEREBEE)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — What started as a grassroots movement on social media has led to actual change (or at least, proposed change) regarding how the county regulates development and the cutting down of large oak trees.

Perhaps the biggest change to the tree removal ordinance would be the identification of a new type of tree, ‘specimen trees.’

So what is a specimen tree? Well, if county commissioners approve the proposed text amendment at the upcoming meeting, specimen trees would be any live oak tree 36 inches in diameter or more at breast height (which the county would also define as 4.5 feet.

This would be a big step for the county as the current code does not specifically identify these large live oak trees as protected or different than any of the other types of trees.

While there are already protections in place for both regulated trees and significant trees, the removal of large oaks has drawn the most ire from residents.

(Keep reading below story)

Commissioner responds to oak tree threat: ‘We should strive to be more like Charleston … less like Myrtle Beach’

A definition for specimen trees is a start, but without more to the code, it does little to protect the trees. That is why the proposed ordinance, if approved, would prohibit the removal of any specimen trees. There are exceptions to the rules, but it would be significantly more difficult or developers to get approval to remove one of these trees.

According to the proposed code, “Landowners may request a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) related to the removal of specimen trees when site-specific conditions meet the criteria for a variance …”

Also, the removal of any tree that poses a hazardous condition that would endanger the public, or cause a disruption of public services would be a valid excuse for a removal.

If a developer does want to remove a tree, and the ZBA grants a variance, a developer would be required to either plant new trees or pay a mitigation fee if the number of trees required for mitigation can not be put on the land.

The new code would also help county staff determine just how much those mitigation fees would be — $200 per caliper inch.

That means the removal of a 36-inch live oak tree would cost developers $7,200.

As has been seen in Wilmington though, developers and property owners often proceed with the removal of trees prior to asking permission, State Street Companies, the developer behind the Galleria Project is one such example.

Related: Three years later, Wrightsville Ave Galleria developer hasn’t paid fine or replanted trees

So in an effort to avoid such activities, the new county ordinance would double the mitigation cost per tree cut making a $7,200 tree nearly $15,000.

The Board of Commissioners Commissioners will meet on Monday, Nov. 4 at 4 p.m. at the Government Center. Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the text amendment before approving or denying it.


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