Who is in charge of enforcing county's tree ordinance?

An S.C. attorney general's opinion has cast doubt on whether Beaufort County can allow some homeowners associations to enforce the county's tree-removal ordinance.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, requested the opinion from the office of Attorney General Henry McMaster.

In a five-page letter to Erickson dated Aug. 4, the office concluded, "We would advise that the county is precluded from delegating its authority to enforce its ordinances to an individual or private entity, such as a homeowners association."

The county allows private developments with rules more stringent than county code to regulate tree removal on their own.

The attorney general's office, however, said, "It is well recognized that ... powers involving the exercise of judgment and discretion are in the nature of public trusts and cannot be delegated to a committee or agent."

Enforcing a zoning ordinance "is not simply a ministerial function," according to the opinion, which is not binding.

Paula Loftis, who lives in Pleasant Point on Lady's Island, said she asked Erickson to seek the opinion on behalf of other concerned residents and on the advice of the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law Project. The Attorney General's Office provides legal advise to the governor, members of the General Assembly and other public state officials.

The Pleasant Point homeowners association took over tree removal oversight in 2008, Loftis said.

It was the 16th development allowed to enforce tree maintenance and removal programs "equal to or more restrictive than the requirements of the county ordinance," according to a letter from county administrator Gary Kubic.

It was not immediately clear how many are on the list now.

A receptionist at Kubic's office referred questions to county attorney Lad Howell, who could not be reached for comment.

Although the Pleasant Point homeowners association set stricter rules than the county decades ago, recent association leaders have not enforced them and permitted tree removal that would violate both county and association rules, Loftis said.

Lisa O'Brien, listed as the association's board president in its most recent newsletter, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Loftis said she thinks the county has "deserted" residents who have nowhere to appeal if a homeowners association granted tree-removal authority fails to enforce standards.

She said the county should not cede such authority to an association run by a handful of individuals who might not follow through.

Deputy county administrator Bryan Hill said county officials don't plan to change their practice of delegating tree-removal enforcement to homeowners associations who seek it.

Even in places where it does delegate its power, the county will investigate complaints of code violations and enforce its standards if homeowners associations fail to do so, he said.

The county has investigated numerous code complaints in Pleasant Point, Hill said.

"It's got to be our ordinance or something better," he said.