David Lauderdale

Leave Hilton Head alone. If you want a clear-cut, barren wasteland, go to the moon

That deep rumble you hear is not, just this once, a grinder chewing up another fallen tree on Hilton Head Island.

It is the rumble of islanders of yore rolling over in their graves.

Those old warriors are pounding their fists and hollering through tears, and the only question is, Why aren’t we?

They’re rolling over in their graves at the photo displayed at a Town Council committee meeting last week.

Council member Glenn Stanford projected two photographs. The first showed a large wooded tract with a healthy tree canopy. The second showed the same piece of land today. It is barren. It has been clear-cut and down to the dirt to make way for a 34-home subdivision.

“How in the world did this happen?” Stanford asked.

The answer is that we’re shilly-shallying on trees again.

We’re going against every molecule of DNA that exists in the Town of Hilton Head Island, or, at least, should exist. The town was created in 1983 because the people were tired of the rape of a beautiful community by rampant, lightly controlled development.

One of the first demands from the public was a tree-preservation ordinance.

Katie Callahan, a Packet columnist and freelance features writer — a lean, tall Texan who roared around in a Volkswagen after her dear husband retired from Big Steel — stirred up a group called “Save Our Trees.”

Katie and Jane Plante literally walked in front a bulldozer to stop it from clearing trees along Palmetto Bay Road.

And in 1984, they led some 250 people of all descriptions on a “Save Our Trees” march down Pope Avenue.

So the new town government was browbeaten to enact a tree-protection law even before it had purchased staplers.

In late 1985, the Council passed a tree ordinance before it had done the Land Management Ordinance. And even that was a year too late for the “Save Our Trees Committee.”

“Now we are told by some island builders and developers that it will be costly, unwieldy and difficult to administer,” Callahan railed in a letter to the editor following a delay in enacting the ordinance.

“We never thought it would be easy to save trees,” she said, “but many other communities have succeeded.

“We never thought it would be inexpensive to save trees, but we thought it would be worth the effort and expense ...

“I say to the men and women of Hilton Head, and to the mayor and Town Council, let’s quit shilly-shallying and move along with the tree proposal.

“Let’s try, for once, to please all of US and hope that builders and developers can adjust to what WE want. It seems to me they’ve gotten an awful lot of what THEY want in the past.”

When the ordinance passed in October 1985, “Save Our Trees” volunteers worked with Sally Krebs, hired to be the new part-time administrator for the town’s tree protection ordinance, to monitor commercial construction sites to make sure trees that were to be protected were actually protected.

Tree protection was enshrined in the Land Management Ordinance when it finally passed in 1986, and it remains there, though it apparently has been watered down.

“Quality of life: that’s what this is all about,” island environmentalist Todd Ballantine said of that chapter in the LMO. “That’s what people marched on the highway about a few years ago.”

And that’s why many of those marchers are rolling over in their graves today.

Island residents today who stand on their broad shoulders must get back to the grindstone.

Go to Town Hall. Demand something better. Go through the mind-numbing, endless minutiae of ordinance-making. It’s a bottomless pit. It never goes away. The women who marched in the street thought they got the best tree-protection law in America. Now that law enables clear-cutting. The ordinance must be changed, now. That will only happen when activists become active.

Which leads to Council member Glenn Stanford’s great question:

“How in the world did this happen?”

We need an answer.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
Support my work with a digital subscription