CAROLINA BEACH ––– A petition to save a large live oak nestled in the center of a small lot one block from the ocean is gaining traction in Carolina Beach.
As of Thursday afternoon, the online petition had collected more than 1,350 signatures, asking the community to rally behind preserving the oak and the town to draft a tree retention ordinance.
The 50-by-100-foot lot on Ocean Boulevard is slated to be developed into a raised, three-story duplex with ocean views. One unit of the duplex was first listed for sale for $874,000 in mid-June. Port City Capital LLC is under contract to purchase the lot, listed at $324,900. The dual listing is a real estate maneuver that means both the lot and the proposed unit are up for sale simultaneously.
First put on the market in February, the lot went under contract in late April. An attorney representing Port City Capital provided a comment on behalf of the company, stating it has been vigilant in listening to the community’s concerns to determine the best path forward for the tree (read the full statement at the bottom of this article). The company considered relocating it, but was quoted the feat would cost as much as $200,000, given only a 50% chance the tree would survive the disturbance.
“Our team continuously strives to prioritize the best interests of our local community in every aspect of our projects, with the optimal goal being to better the community, not harm it,” the statement reads. “We empathize with those who wish to save this live oak tree. However, the owner made the decision to sell the property, and it was listed for sale with the understanding that the tree would have to be cut down in order to build on the lot.”
Port City Capital was one of multiple potential buyers who submitted offers to purchase the property with the intention of developing it. “Although we are moving forward with the project, any one of the other potential buyers would be ready, willing and able to step into our shoes if we backed out of the deal,” according to the statement. “Ultimately, the unfortunate reality is that the tree was destined to be cut down whether we chose to purchase and develop the property or not.”
The current property owner did not return a message seeking comment.
Protecting heritage oaks
Carolina Beach resident Britt Evans bikes by the sprawling oak, hoisting a two-seater wooden swing, almost every day. She knew the lot was for sale but thought there may have been efforts underway to preserve the tree, she said. “Then I just happened upon the listing for the duplex that’s going to be built there and I was shocked,” she said.
The petition is Evans’ first, and she’s hoping, if nothing else, it brings attention to the need for a tree ordinance in Carolina Beach. “I think the situation we’re in right now shows we need an ordinance that’s deliberate in maintaining and improving Carolina Beach’s tree canopy coverage and, specifically, protecting these trees,” she said.
Though the town has studied options in the past, it has no tree preservation ordinance, aside from requiring buffered landscaping for new or expanded projects for most land uses (not including single- or two-family homes).
“We encourage people to save trees but it’s nothing where we say, ‘No, you have to save that tree,’” town planning director Jeremy Hardison said. “Especially with that one. That would be very tough because you’ve essentially got a non-buildable lot because of how that tree is situated on the property.”
After considering introducing new tree ordinances in 2018, the town’s planning and zoning commission ultimately recommended leaving the code alone; council left it open-ended, instead tasking the operations advisory committee to focus on enhancing the town’s stormwater rules, an effort that was stalled by the pandemic but may soon resurface.
Unincorporated New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington both have tree protection ordinances. New Hanover County recently strengthened its requirements following public pressure surrounding the Island’s Fresh Mex oaks, with frontage on Market Street in Ogden, when developers planned to raze it for a car wash in 2019. Developers reworked their plan to accommodate saving the oaks and the county later created a new, “specimen” tree designation, with special protections for the largest trees. Before then, public outcry saved a more than 200-year-old live oak further down the same road in 2017, when the developers of the Publix shopping center spent at least $80,000 to move it away from the road.
After years of neglecting to adequately enforce its tree ordinance –– collecting just a smidgen of fines for violations issued –– Wilmington is tightening up its rules as part of its Land Development Code rewrite. Wilmington’s current code exempts any residential property owner under 2 acres to remove trees as they please without a permit; the new LDC would lower the exception to 1-acre lots.
A majority of parcels on Carolina Beach are compact, 0.1-acre lots. With setbacks, a driveway, and a residential structure, there’s not a whole lot of room for much else.
Private property rights
While Carolina Beach’s oak is a different story from the other recent oak campaigns (it’s a smaller lot meant for residential use), it could prompt the town to re-examine its ordinances.
Councilman Steve Shuttleworth, who by trade develops residential and commercial projects in the region, said he imagines council will soon be tasked with the topic.
“I think we would all be in agreement that it’s a beautiful specimen and it’s in a difficult location to build around,” he said of the Ocean Boulevard tree. “So what’s the solution?”
Local governments can mandate developers replace what’s lost, using mitigation equations that require planting back trees. Equations vary, considering inches lost or the number of trees razed.
At a D.R. Horton development off Castle Hayne Road, Shuttleworth said the county’s equation mandated he replant 700 trees. With root balls wrapped in thick burlap bags, each 2-3-inch tree weighed 300 pounds. “It cost me a fortune to have them delivered and unloaded and planted,” he said. “County staff concurred that that seemed to be a little excessive.”
Another option is payment in lieu of replacing the trees, but this isn’t as feasible in the largely built-out beach town, which lacks public, open spaces where trees could be planted using a mitigation fund.
“What is replacement? What is fair and equitable? And we don’t have that currently in Carolina Beach” Shuttleworth said. “Is that something we should look at? I’m sure we’re going to be asked to do it.”
As for the Ocean Boulevard oak, Shuttleworth can’t support intervening on the current plans. “Preservation is one thing. It’s difficult to do on 50-by-120 lots. It just is,” he said. “As a private property rights person, I don’t see how you can tell them you cannot build on your property.”
Read the full statement from Port City Capital below:
“It recently came to our attention that our anticipated development of a private property in Carolina Beach has elicited many responses from the local community. We are conscious of the opinions expressed regarding the anticipated removal of the live oak tree, and those opinions have not fallen on deaf ears.
Our team continuously strives to prioritize the best interests of our local community in every aspect of our projects, with the optimal goal being to better the community, not harm it. Over the past few weeks, we have taken the public’s comments seriously and have been vigilant in our efforts to determine the best path moving forward for the tree, the project, and the community. We have looked into numerous options, including relocating the tree. However, the estimated cost to do so was quoted to be upwards of $200,000.00, with only a 50% chance that the tree would survive.
We empathize with those who wish to save this live oak tree. However, the owner made the decision to sell the property, and it was listed for sale with the understanding that the tree would have to be cut down in order to build on the lot. We were only one of numerous potential buyers who submitted offers to purchase the property with the intention of developing it. Although we are moving forward with the project, any one of the other potential buyers would be ready, willing and able to step into our shoes if we backed out of the deal. Ultimately, the unfortunate reality is that the tree was destined to be cut down whether we chose to purchase and develop the property or not.
We understand that there is a portion of the community that will never be satisfied so long as the tree is still being cut down. However, we have a track record of taking undesirable situations and turning them into something positive. We intend to repurpose the materials from this tree and utilize those in practical ways to ensure that the enjoyment and usefulness of this tree extends long past its life. We are also committed to the reforestation of the local community and are currently in the process of determining the best avenues for us to contribute to these efforts.
We share the sentiment that this is a less than ideal situation. However, we remain committed to finding the silver lining and continuing to find ways to better the community through our work.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org