Controversial, noisy tree business moves from one Hilton Head community to another

Too noisy? Hilton Head residents worried about tree service coming too close to home

Port Royal Plantation residents are worried about a possible lease between ArborNature and the Town of Hilton Head Island that could bring a tree grinding service right outside their neighborhood. Is the service too noisy? Listen yourself.
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Port Royal Plantation residents are worried about a possible lease between ArborNature and the Town of Hilton Head Island that could bring a tree grinding service right outside their neighborhood. Is the service too noisy? Listen yourself.

A controversial tree-grinding operation on Hilton Head is officially moving away from Indigo Run and toward Port Royal Plantation and the Hilton Head Airport.

Members of Hilton Head Town Council approved an ordinance Tuesday night that will move ArborNature from its existing site on Leg O’ Mutton Road to town-owned land on Summit Drive.

But the decision came after nearly 45 minutes of public comment asking council to look at the ArborNature deal more carefully.

“ArborNature is taking tremendous advantage of this town and taking it all the way to the bank,” resident Gary Higgins said.

The argument by nearby residents is that ArborNature misrepresented itself as a wholesale nursery only to become a solid waste management/tree-grinding operation that created massive noise concerns. One resident called the original application a “back-room deal.”

A call on Wednesday to the legal counsel representing ArborNature, Chester Williams, was not returned.

In February, a circuit court judge ruled the town had to move forward with the settlement agreement, which included the lease.

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Town of Hilton Head Island agenda materials

How’d we get here?

The ArborNature debate began in council around May 2016 — when town LMO official Teri Lewis sent a letter to the company stating that it was out of compliance following noise complaints from neighbors in Indigo Run.

ArborNature appealed that letter to the town’s board of zoning appeals, which stood by Lewis’ decision.

When the company appealed in circuit court, the town reached a settlement, which was approved in June 2017.

ArborNature’s grinding operation, as seen on May 9, 2018. Alex Kincaid

That settlement — which was effectively put into action on Tuesday with the approval of the lease — includes the following points:

  • The town will lease a 4-acre portion in the Summit Drive area to ArborNature for one year for one dollar.
  • ArborNature has the option to purchase the Summit Drive property for $300,000. Resident Alex Brown said the town owes the public an “explanation” for how it can sell the land for a seemingly low price of $75,000 per acre.
  • ArborNature will not be required to meet minimum tree-planting requirements and buffer regulations on the site “as long as the property is used for grinding.”
  • The grinding can only take place between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, per new noise control rules passed Tuesday evening.
  • The town will rezone the old ArborNature site on Leg O’Mutton Road to allow retail or residential development, making it possible for the company to sell the old property for a higher price.

Not everyone is happy with these terms, though.

“The settlement agreement is extraordinarily one-sided,” Port Royal resident Risa Prince told The Island Packet. “The town was not well-represented in that negotiation and the taxpayers are now paying the consequences.”

Prince is the co-founder of the group Citizens for Neighborhood Protection, which has opposed moving ArborNature operations since the start.

ArborNature on Leg O’ Mutton on May 18, 2016 File photo

Indigo Run general manager Chip Munday supported approving the lease and moving the operation out of Indigo Run’s backyard.

“(I’m) hoping there will be resolution to this multi-year issue,” he said Tuesday. “I understand Port Royal’s concerns, but there is a difference though. We’re facing the reality of the situation that currently exists — the folks in Port Royal are concerned about how that may play out.”

But Port Royal residents, who hoped the town would negotiate a different settlement agreement in the nine months since it was approved, say they’re “disappointed” and “frustrated.”

“It’s not just Port Royal, it’s all of the other residents who live closer to the Summit Drive operation,” Prince said. “They’re going to take the brunt of the continuous, noisy operation that the neighbors at Indigo Run have experienced.”

Hilton Head Island mulching business ArborNature, on Leg O’ Mutton Road across from Indigo Run, has drawn the ire of some area residents and businesses over noise from the company’s wood chippers. The firm was cited by the town in 2016 and appealed. Josh Mitelman

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.