Another lawsuit filed to halt tree-clearing at Hilton Head airport

The native-island congregation of St. James Baptist Church filed a lawsuit this week to stop tree-cutting at the Hilton Head Island Airport.

The suit says the town's zoning board acted improperly in denying its appeals against the cutting.

Chet Williams, the church's lawyer, argues the Board of Zoning Appeals did not have jurisdiction in the matter and that the church's appeals should have been heard by the town's Planning Commission instead.

Town attorney Greg Alford has said the zoning board acted within its authority. Board members said town staff followed proper procedures and the cutting should be allowed.

The town and county have 30 days to respond to the complaint filed Monday in Circuit Court in Beaufort.

The suit against the town and county is the latest challenge by the church, which is under the airport's flight path on Beach City Road, to prevent tree-cutting at the county-owned airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration awarded the county a one-time grant last year of about $1.5 million for tree work on airport property. That money must be spent within three years, according to Mary Lohr of Beaufort-based law firm Howell, Gibson & Hughes, which is representing the county.

By the time appeals work their way through circuit and appellate courts, the county could lose that money, Lohr has said.

Airport and county officials say the longer the work is delayed, the greater the safety hazard for pilots.

Town Council amended its ordinance last year to allow the cutting. Williams, on behalf of the church, stalled the cutting when he argued the town had not followed proper procedures. The town conceded and re-approved the ordinance May 4.

The town issued a tree-cutting permit Sept. 1 to the county. Work was to begin Oct. 1 to remove or trim about 1,400 trees on the north end of the runway to comply with federal regulations that prohibit obstructions within the approach slope, airport officials say.

The appeals Williams filed with the town delayed the start of work, however.

The suit argues the ordinance and the permit are still invalid.

"The (permit) was wrongfully and improperly issued by the town to the county, arbitrarily and capriciously," Williams wrote in the suit.

He said the tree-cutting would harm his client by eliminating a natural sound barrier and buffer, lowering their quality of life and property values.

Williams also filed a lawsuit Dec. 15 in Circuit Court, claiming the county's application for the town permit was incomplete and should not have been accepted.