Another appeal stands in the way of airport tree-cutting

The contracts have been awarded for the cutting. The scheduled start date has passed. Yet the trees still stand at Hilton Head Island Airport.

Their fate has once again been delayed, as dense legal arguments now hold sway.

Frustration by Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County officials was palpable Monday as town officials heard the latest in a series of appeals intended to delay tree-cutting at the county-owned airport.

Eyes rolled, heads shook and attorneys paced as the town Board of Zoning Appeals listened to heated debates that had little to do with saws and timber and more to do with an application being filled out properly and whether anyone was harmed by said application.

Hilton Head attorney Chester C. Williams filed appeals Sept. 15 on behalf of St. James Baptist Church with the town's Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, asking that a permit allowing tree-cutting be revoked. The appeal filed with the Planning Commission was rejected by town staff.

The result: At least another month before cutting can begin.

Town attorney Greg Alford called it "a giant waste of time."

Williams was unfazed. "The town has to play by its own rules," he said.

The town issued the permit Sept. 1 to Beaufort County government. Work was slated to begin Oct. 1 to remove and trim about 1,400 trees on the north end of the runway. The cutting is needed to comply with federal regulations prohibiting obstructions within the runway's approach slope, airport officials say.

County airports manager Paul Andres said the trees continue to hinder commercial airlines' ability to carry passengers. Both Delta Airlines and US Airways are forced to reduce weight to clear the trees with a safe margin. And the longer the appeals take, the worse the safety hazard posed by the trees, Andres said.

"We have to resolve this to move forward," he said. "With each passing day, it becomes progressively worse because the trees continue to grow."

Williams argued that a town official acted improperly in accepting the county's application for a permit to trim trees, which he alleges was incomplete.

That led to nearly an hour of back-and-forth discussions with board members, Alford and the county attorney as to whether Williams' client, St. James Baptist Church, was harmed by a town official accepting that application.

"What harm is there by an administrator saying an application is complete enough to review?" Alford asked. "This has nothing to do with the merits of the permit, but whether they have standing to appeal something that hasn't harmed anyone."

County attorney Lad Howell also was perturbed by Williams' argument, calling it a frivolous delay tactic.

"Frankly, the appellant has gone to great lengths on a time-consuming appeal," Howell said.

Williams said town staff accepted the permit application without necessary permits and approvals from state and federal agencies, failed to address tree protection and replacement, lacked a mitigation plan and adequate site plan. The result, he said, allows tree-cutting that will negatively affect his client.

Nearby residents, including St. James Baptist Church congregation members, say the tree work will eliminate a natural sound barrier, leading to increased noise from air traffic. The result, they say, will lower their quality of life and property values.

The board ultimately voted unanimously, with two members absent, to dismiss Williams' appeal.

But it doesn't end there.

Another appeal by Williams challenging the merits of the permit will be heard Nov. 22 by the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Until then, and possibly longer, the trees stand.