Town threatened over tree law

BLYTHEWOOD – Town Council held a public hearing Monday night concerning Council’s desire to amend Ordinance 155.390 (Landscaping and Buffer Requirements) by repealing section (H) which exempts certain projects from the ordinance requirements.

Council and residents say section (H), which was adopted in 2015, is an unintended loophole in the ordinance that allows developers to abuse the ordinance to the point of clear cutting lots.

Earl McLeod, Executive Director of the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina said the amendment would be tantamount to changing rules in the middle of the game and threatened to lawyered up if the ordinance is amended.

Section (H) states that those projects are exempt “which have received major subdivision or site plan approval prior to the effective date of this subchapter and amended major subdivision and site plans.”

Council is reviewing the ordinance to be sure it is clear in regard to section (H).

The issue arose recently over lots that D.R. Horton clear cut in Cobblestone Park. Residents there said they woke up one morning to find the trees on lots next door to them gone.

“This was not the intent of our ordinance which was to protect the trees and landscaping in our town,” Mayor J. Michael Ross said.

The stated purpose of the ordinance is to prevent “indiscriminate, uncontrolled and excessive destruction, removal and clear cutting of trees upon lots and tracts of land…”

The intent of the subchapter is long and detailed: “to promote the health, safety and general welfare of the public; to facilitate the creation of a convenient, attractive and harmonious community; to conserve natural resources including adequate air and water; to conserve properties and their values; to preserve the character of an area by preserving and enhancing the scenic quality of the area; and to encourage the appropriate use of the land…and to provide shade,” among other things.

All residential, commercial or industrial lot owners wishing to remove trees of certain kinds and sizes must comply with a list of rules and regulations, the ordinance states.

But representatives of the building industry were on hand to push back against the proposed amendment.

Shay Alford with Essex Homes said he is concerned about implications on a broader scope, to projects already permitted and in existence.

“We go through a strenuous process to achieve permitting. That is an agreement we have with the Town. If you change the rules of the game, that creates a series of complications and hardships for us that were unintended, perhaps, but still exist,” Alford said.

While Jesse Bray with D.R. Horton chose not to speak, he said he agreed with Alford.

McLeod was blunt, telling Council that they might want to consider the consequences of amending the ordinance.

“State law provides for vesting for a project once it is permitted in that a developer can rely on the rules in place at the time of permitting,” McLeod said. “That’s an issue you need to be concerned with…To change that midstream would certainly be open to litigation and none of us want to go there,” he said.

While town attorney Jim Meggs suggested to Ross, “We would want to talk about the legal aspects in executive session,” the mayor didn’t back down from defending the Town’s reasons for wanting to abolish the exemption.

“The people of Blythewood who live here in these developments are the ones who are not happy seeing all the trees taken down,” Ross said. “When we adopted this ordinance, we did not think there was an exemption in there. We missed that. But when the public comes to you from whatever neighborhood and says, ‘We don’t like the lots being clear cut,’ we have let them down. We answer to them, too. There are two sides to this.”

The issue has been sent back to the Planning Commission for a recommendation before Council holds second reading.