County withdraws permit to trim trees at Hilton Head airport until town ordinance is passed

April 26, 2010 

Beaufort County withdrew its permit to cut trees at the Hilton Head Island Airport -- for now -- after a church's lawyer said the town had not followed proper procedures in granting permission for the cutting.

Hilton Head Island's tree trimming ordinance, approved March 16, needs another reading and vote by the Town Council before it can become law, according to Charles Cousins, the town's community development director.

That won't slow the tree trimming, though, town and county officials said. The county will resubmit an application for tree removal after the ordinance is officially approved, said county airports director Paul Andres. The county plans to begin the trimming in late August or early September, he said.

And St. James Baptist Church, whose native island congregation wants to prevent the cutting of two nearby large live oaks, plans to continue fighting, according to its lawyer.

The church, which sits near the north end of the airport's runway, will file another objection if the town approves the ordinance on a third reading, according to attorney Chester Williams.

Williams contends the ordinance still would be invalid on other procedural grounds. For instance, "the ordinance needs to go back to the Planning Commission for review," he said.

Town officials say they became aware the ordinance needed a third vote to become law after the church contested the town's authority to grant the county permission after only two readings.

The county plans to pay for the tree trimming with a one-time $3 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, Andres said. The county hasn't received the money yet, he added.

"Obviously, we can't do any work without a permit, but we can continue to do the things necessary to be ready to do the work," Andres said.

The delay shouldn't affect the FAA funding, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.

"We will still fund the tree removal," she said. "We recognize that tree removal takes time."

Not an infinite amount of time, though.

The trees will have to be cut eventually for the airport to be in compliance with FAA standards, Bergen said.

The Town Council could hold the final vote on the ordinance at its next meeting, May 4, according to Councilman John Safay.

"What happened here is one of those little legal glitches. We are going by the letter of the law," he said.

Town manager Steve Riley said he didn't think the council erred in passing the ordinance, but it will vote on it again anyway.

"Is it worth fighting over?" he asked. "No."

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