Bluffton's largest and most historic trees would be better protected under a proposal being considered by the town's Planning Commission.
The panel praised the proposed amendment expanding the definition of protected trees and establishing a strict review process for removing those that are deemed significant.
"I think this would make us all more aware of what trees are protected," said Roberts Vaux, chairman of the town's Beautification Committee, at Wednesday night's Planning Commission meeting. "Before, you could cut down large oaks without a permit in some cases."
Under the amendment, trees that are at least 8 inches in diameter at chest-height -- dimensions that include most fully-grown trees -- would be protected and require a permit to remove.
A permit would also be required for Dogwood, Redbud, Southern Magnolia and Red Buckeye trees that are at least 4 inches in diameter.
The amendment also lays out criteria for removing a significant tree, defined as 24 inches or greater in diameter, any listed on America's Historic Tree Register and those within wetland buffers.
"Anything of that size requires approval, and every reasonable effort should be made to protect that tree," said Ben Brown of the town's Planning and Community Development Department.
"It's not the intent of this to tell folks they can't develop property," he added. "We're just creating the mindset of preservation.
The amendment follows questions raised by town staff after three live oaks, measuring 21, 24 and 34 inches in diameter respectively, were cut down in July at the Parker's gas station construction site at the corner of May River and Buck Island roads.
Brown said Parker's acted within the law, but the removal highlighted confusion in the town's process.
In addition to supporting the amendment, the commissioners suggested the town work with developers earlier in the planning process.
"If we're more proactive early on, there's a chance we could save some of those trees," said Planning Commission chairman Thomas Viljac.
Commissioners encouraged the town to require a tree survey by developers before it gives a project a final review.
That would allow the town to double-check the property to be sure no trees were missed and give developers time to make changes, Viljac said.
"We're really trying to encourage creative planning," said Brown. "This forces everyone to do their due diligence up front."
The commission will discuss the amendment again at its Nov. 20 meeting and make a final recommendation to town council, who would then vote on the measure, according to town documents.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.