Airport tree-cutting clears another legal hurdle, but plans remain in limbo

Beaufort County Master in Equity Marvin Dukes III ruled Friday in favor of the Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County, which seek to remove trees at Hilton Head Island Airport.

County officials, though, say it's still too early to say when trees will be cut at the county-owned airport.

Dukes dismissed an appeal by St. James Baptist Church, a native-island congregation that had challenged a permit issued by the town's Board of Zoning Appeals. The permit allowed the county to trim and remove about 1,400 trees at the north end of the runway to comply with federal safety regulations.

The church, on Beach City Road north of the airport, filed a lawsuit in January aimed at stopping tree-cutting on airport property. The suit says the zoning board improperly denied its appeals and a town ordinance allowing the tree work is invalid.

The church has argued that tree-cutting will cause harm by eliminating a natural sound barrier and buffer

Dukes, however, ruled the town board acted within its authority, which is limited to "proper enforcement" of town ordinances, not judging their validity.

The church has 10 days to appeal Friday's ruling, town attorney Curtis Coltrane said.

St. James Deacon Perry White declined comment and referred questions to the church's attorneys, who could not be reached Monday.

The church filed a separate complaint April 20 in federal court requesting a jury trial. The suit alleges the town violated due process and equal protection provisions under the U.S. and S.C. constitutions. That case could take a year or more to be resolved, county attorney Lad Howell said.

He and Coltrane say they will likely ask for an expedited review of both cases, citing public-safety and financial concerns.

"If an appeal is filed, there is an automatic stay during the appeal. That's where the lawyering would begin to seek to lift the stay (on tree-cutting) for public safety," said county administrator Gary Kubic.

A US Airways official said last week the company's frustration is growing as it loses money because of trees in the approach path and a short runway. He said both hinder the operations of the airport's sole commercial carrier. Delta Air Lines discontinued service to the airport Nov. 1, citing the route's poor performance.

County Council members on May 9 questioned whether to proceed with tree-trimming -- not removal, which the church opposes -- while the legal issues play out. County officials said a piecemeal approach could cost more, not meet FAA reimbursement and prolong operational concerns at the airport.

"The issue of trimming is terribly expensive, and we can only do it one time with FAA reimbursement," Howell said. "The county has terrible budget constraints next year, and there won't be any money to trim the trees at Hilton Head."

St. James congregants and residents of Palmetto Hall and Port Royal Plantations argue tree removal has never been an FAA requirement and the root of the problem lies with the county's failure to trim the trees over the last 15 years.

The county trimmed trees on the north end of the airport in 1995 and 1996, but they have not been cut since, Kubic said.

The town spent more than $25,000 through April 30 on time and legal expenses related to the church's appeals, according to town manager Steve Riley. Information on county expenses was not immediately available.