Beaufort News

County may proceed with airport tree work -- at least, until appeal

Trees at the north end of the Hilton Head Island Airport runway may finally get cut this month -- or not.

Beaufort County Master in Equity Marvin Dukes III on Friday denied a motion from St. James Baptist Church to reconsider his May 13 order allowing the tree work.

Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County officials met Tuesday at the airport with an arborist and tree contractor to mark buffers, boundaries and wetlands to be protected during the cutting. A notice to proceed could be issued within a week by the county to Allcare Tree Surgery of Bluffton.

"We are proceeding to cut the trees, and if all goes well, we should get started sometime next week," county administrator Gary Kubic said.

The church, however, has 30 days to appeal Dukes' ruling to the S.C. Court of Appeals, town and county attorneys said. An appeal would come with a new stay to prevent tree work. County and town attorneys said they would then ask a judge to lift the stay.

Chet Williams, one of two attorneys representing the historic, native-island congregation, declined to comment Wednesday.

Until a stay is issued, work can begin, said county attorney Josh Gruber.

The church, on Beach City Road north of the county-owned airport, sued in January to prevent tree-cutting on airport property. The church has argued that cutting will cause harm by eliminating a natural sound barrier and buffer.

Dukes, however, said the church failed to prove it would be damaged.

Town and county officials say much of the trees' canopies need to be removed to meet federal safety guidelines for takeoffs and landings.

The trees also hinder airline operations, according to an official with US Airways Express, the island's lone commercial carrier.

Cost is another factor. The Federal Aviation Administration last year awarded the county a one-time grant of about $1.15 million for tree work on airport property, which would cover 95 percent of the projected costs. The rest would be split between a state grant and the airport budget.

St. James congregants say they don't oppose tree trimming, just clear-cutting. They claim insufficient attention has been given to normal tree maintenance, noise abatement and environmental mitigation.

The FAA funding, however, would be more efficiently spent removing many of the trees to avoid future trimming costs, airport officials say. An arborist would guide trimming and removal.

Smaller trees that do not have the potential to grow into the runway's approach slope would be planted to create a buffer along Beach City and Dillon roads and St. James Baptist Church property, according to project plans.