A town of Bluffton attorney this week defended a $71,500 settlement with a developer who clear-cut about 6,000 trees on property along U.S. 278.
Town attorney Terry Finger called the settlement with Indian Hill Associates LLC a cost-effective way to put the controversial matter to rest.
Critics said Bluffton accepted far too little from the developer and set a precedent that won't deter others from similar tree clearing.
Indian Hill paid to settle a lawsuit filed by the town that claims the company cleared trees on more than 107 acres of the 162-acre Willow Run Tract.
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The land -- across from Eagle's Pointe and west of Rose Hill -- has been the site of several failed development projects.
The town's lawsuit -- which did not seek a specific amount -- sought timber profits and damages triple the value of the removed trees.
It instead accepted $71,500 from the company, an amount critics say is much less than the lawsuit might have brought.
Finger said the settlement amount is equal to the developer's timber profits plus about $5,000 in attorney fees. The town also has the right to replant trees in wetlands on the site, he said.
The town chose to settle because the company was prepared to fight, Finger said.
According to the lawsuit, about 5,800 of the downed trees were larger than 8 inches in diameter, and 350 more were at least 24 inches in diameter.
Town ordinance prohibits removal of trees of those sizes without approval.
But company attorneys pointed to a state statute that says, in part, no local ordinance or development agreement can override a property owner's right to timber.
Attempts last week to reach Willow Run property owner Paul Schlosser or an attorney for the company were unsuccessful.
Finger believes the town would have won had the company invoked that state statute in court.
The legal process, however, would have been long and expensive, he said.
"It would have been a costly endeavor for the town," he said. "There would have been a trial and, ultimately, probably an appeal. Town Council decided, 'Let's take the money. Let's put it in our tree bank.'"
Councilwoman Karen Lavery said she thought the best decision was to take the money when the case was settled in November.
"In hindsight, yes, maybe we could have gone for more," she said. "But it was a matter we let our attorney handle. It seemed like the right deal."
Some Bluffton residents and environmentalists see it differently.
They point to other instances where area governments imposed stricter penalties for cutting trees.
More importantly, environmentalists say, the relatively light penalty sends a message that developers can cut trees first and ask for forgiveness later.
"The penalty is an insult to the community and effectively buys the developer the right to cut the trees and desecrate the environment," said Kate Schaefer, director of the Coastal Conservation League's Beaufort office.
Finger disagrees, saying such penalties will discourage property owners and developers from reckless tree cutting.
"If someone thinks that they ultimately will not receive any profit from what they are doing, absolutely, this is a deterrent," he said.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.