Legal appeals could bring another delay to airport tree-cutting plans

Legal appeals filed this week could delay work to cut trees at Hilton Head Island Airport -- for the second time.

Chester C. Williams, a Hilton Head Island attorney, filed appeals Wednesday on behalf of St. James Baptist Church with the town's Planning Commission and its Board of Zoning Appeals, asking that a permit allowing tree work at the county-owned airport be revoked.

The town issued the permit Sept. 1 to Beaufort County government. On Thursday, a town official defended the permit.

"We believe we have issued correctly the permits and asked the county to seek their own legal advice if they want to move forward," said town community development director Charles Cousins.

Attempts Thursday to reach county administrator Gary Kubic were unsuccessful.

Williams, though, asserts that once the appeal is filed, the county has no right to act on the town permit.

Work is slated to begin next month to trim or remove about 1,400 trees on the north end of the runway. The work is being done so that the airport will comply with federal regulations prohibiting obstructions within the runway's approach slope, said county airports manager Paul Andres.

Nearby property owners say the tree-cutting will eliminate a natural sound barrier, increasing noise from airport traffic and lowering quality of life and property values. St. James Baptist Church has been trying to preserve large live oaks on its property.

Town Council amended its ordinances earlier this year to allow the cutting. Williams was able to stall the cutting then when he discovered the town had not followed proper procedure.

In late March, he filed an appeal on behalf of the native-island congregation to block the work, in part because the ordinance needed an additional reading before becoming law. The town conceded and re-approved the ordinance May 4.

Williams says the ordinance is still invalid on other procedural grounds and its substance.

His argues:

"They can't even follow their own rules," Williams said. "And it allows the county to play by a different set of rules than other people have to play by."

Town attorney Greg Alford said he has not had time to review the appeals and could not comment.