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.