County should enfore its own tree ordinance

Beaufort County needs to enforce its tree-removal ordinance and stop leaving it to private property owners associations.

The state attorney general said so in a recently released opinion.

The attorney general's office recognizes that these "powers involving the exercise of judgment and discretion are in the nature of public trusts and cannot be delegated to a committee or agent."

That public trust rests solely with the government. The public trust is a responsibility that should not be outsourced or delegated, no matter how convenient or cost-effective that might be.

The opinion was sought after a resident of the Pleasant Point community on Lady's Island thought trees were being cut in violation of the county ordinance and the association's rules.

The resident discovered that the county allowed the private group to enforce the county's tree regulations. The county does this when it concludes the private regulations are "equal to or more restrictive than the requirements of the county ordinance."

The attorney general says that's immaterial. Enforcing a zoning ordinance "is not simply a ministerial function" to be farmed out.

As a matter of fact, it should be the other way around. The county should be routinely checking behind property owners groups to make sure that county ordinances are being followed.

One county administrator said the attorney general's opinion will not change the county's practice. That's a shame. The opinion of the attorney general should matter to those who write and enforce laws. Certainly, the county didn't ignore the advice of the attorney general when that office concluded the county didn't have to turn over emergency medical services information to the public.

The county has concluded that at least 16 private entities have tree-protection regulations as protective as the county ordinance and is satisfied to turn over its enforcement duties to them. It is encouraging that the county says it investigates complaints when they arise. But when it comes to cutting down trees, after-the-fact checking doesn't protect the trees.

But none of this substitutes for the public trust and the public duty that only the county holds to enforce county tree ordinances.