Judge trims delay in airport tree-cutting dispute

March 31, 2011 

A heated dispute over tree-cutting at the Hilton Head Island Airport is on its way to a quicker resolution after a Beaufort County judge Thursday threw out a request that the case go before a jury.

Master-in-Equity Marvin H. Dukes III denied a motion by the native-island congregation of St. James Baptist Church for a jury trial, speeding up the process.

"If this had ended up on the jury roster, it could have taken a year or more for the trial to work its way through the court," said Curtis Coltrane, an attorney for the Town of Hilton Head Island. "It took out a thing that would have had the potential to slow it down in a very material way."

A hearing to decide the case, however, was postponed a couple of weeks, and it could still end up in higher courts.

The church, at the north end of the runway at the county-owned airport on Beach City Road, filed a lawsuit in January intended to stop tree-cutting. The suit says the town Board of Zoning Appeals improperly denied its appeals against the cutting.

Chet Williams, the church's lawyer, also argues the zoning board did not have jurisdiction and the church's appeals should have been heard by the town Planning Commission instead.

Town attorneys have said the board acted within its authority. Board members said town staff followed proper procedures and the cutting should be allowed.

A hearing on the merits of the church's appeal was scheduled Thursday, but was postponed to April 21 after Williams and fellow attorney Dale Akins argued that the record of appeal was incomplete and time was needed to make corrections and additions.

Williams and Akins disagreed with the judge's ruling. They argued the tree-cutting would harm the church by eliminating a natural sound barrier and buffer, lowering its property value. They also argued the county is not allowed to remove or clear-cut trees under town ordinance.

"If they cut those trees, that will materially affect the (church) property," Akins said, and as a result, the church has a "fundamental right" to a jury trial.

Coltrane, however, argued -- and Dukes agreed -- that the church has proven no harm that would warrant a jury trial.

Mary Lohr of Beaufort-based law firm Howell, Gibson & Hughes, which is representing the county, argued that Thursday's motions were the latest in a series of delay tactics that could bleed the county of federal money to pay for the tree work.

Akins and Williams deny they're using stalling tactics.

The Federal Aviation Administration awarded the county a one-time grant last year of about $1.5 million for tree work on airport property. By the time appeals work their way through circuit and appellate courts, the county could lose that money, Lohr said.

The town issued a tree-cutting permit Sept. 1 to the county. Work was to begin in October to remove or trim about 1,400 trees on the north end of the runway to comply with federal regulations that prohibit obstructions within the approach slope or aircraft, airport officials say.

The appeals Williams has filed with the town have delayed the tree work.

Airport and county officials say the longer the work is delayed, the greater the safety hazard for planes using the airport.

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