Piedmont Airlines concerned over tree-cutting delays, says county airports official

Hilton Head Island Airport's lone commercial carrier reportedly shares county officials' frustration over delays to tree-cutting caused by a legal dispute with a native-island congregation.

A representative of Salisbury, Md.-based Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of US Airways, was scheduled to speak Monday before Beaufort County Council about the lack of progress on removing tree obstructions from the runway's approach slope.

The representative, however, was involved in a car wreck on Hilton Head on his way to the meeting in Beaufort and was believed to have suffered minor injuries, said county airports director Paul Andres.

Andres said he was unsure of the airline's specific concerns but said the tree obstructions hinder the company's operations.

The dispute, which also involves the Town of Hilton Head, seemed to be on its way to a quicker resolution after a Beaufort County judge threw out a request for a jury trial. Now, an attorney for St. James Baptist Church will try his luck in U.S. District Court.

Bluffton attorney Dale Akins filed a complaint April 20 in federal court requesting a jury trial based in part on a similar argument dismissed by Master-in-Equity Marvin H. Dukes III that tree-cutting would eliminate a natural sound barrier and buffer, lowering the church's property value.

County attorney Lad Howell told County Council on Monday that Dukes indicated he would rule in the county's favor, but the case will likely be appealed.

Akins, who said he is working the case pro bono, alleges a town ordinance authorizing tree work at the county-owned airport violates due process and equal protection provisions under the U.S. and S.C. constitutions, because the town failed to comply with public-notice requirements and is allowing the airport to undertake activities no other person or property owner is allowed to do.

Howell said the complaint is "without merit."

County officials reiterated Monday their belief the lawsuits are delay tactics that could bleed the county of one-time federal and state money to pay for the tree work. Lawyers for the church deny they're using stalling tactics.