By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Michael Bourland, a resident of Sullivan’s Island, has been fined over $2,080 and found guilty in municipal criminal court for attempting to kill more than 200 trees in the maritime forest.
Bourland, who lives on Atlantic Avenue, paid the fine for cutting and poisoning trees in the accreted land in front of his property, but did not attend the trial in which he was found guilty of violating the Town of Sullivan’s Island’s tree ordinance.
In a letter to the town dated four days before the trial, Bourland’s attorney Robert Lyles, stated: “I also want to be clear that Dr. Bourland’s payment is not intended to be construed as an admission of guilt… This payment is for a disputed claim, taking all factors into consideration including uncertainties and costs of a trial and any appeals.”
At the trial, held Nov. 3, 2015 at Sullivan’s Island Town Hall, the town’s attorney, John Dodds, presented the evidence against Bourland to Judge Duffy.
That evidence included a map showing the trees that had been cut and poisoned spread out in a cone starting in front of Bourland’s property, and a list of each tree that had been affected. (Every tree in the accreted land has been documented by a tree survey undertaken by the town as part of its defense against a lawsuit brought by some residents who want the town to more aggressively cut the forested land.)
“We looked at each and every [tree] and identified it by species and diameter,” Andy Benke, Sullivan’s Island’s Town Administrator, said in an interview with the Island Eye News. “It was clear that these trees had been damaged. But they didn’t die.”
In addition to the physical evidence that the trees had been tampered with, the town presented two eye-witness testimonies at the trial. The first was from resident Julia Khoury, who initially alerted the town to the fact that someone was cutting trees in the accreted land in January, 2015.
Khoury supplied a sketch of a man she had seen and the town set up a “sting” operation, placing cameras and officers in the area. On Sept. 10, 2015 the Sullivan’s Island Police Department issued Bourland with two tickets for violation of ordinance 21-168 at the 1600 block of the accreted land.
The second eyewitness testimony at the trial was from Andy Benke, who had been on a bike ride on a Sunday afternoon when he heard the sound of cutting.
“I walked up into the bushes and caught him cutting,” Benke said. “When I spoke to him he took the mask off, and I said, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be doing this.’ He was standing there with the machete and the squirter.”
According to Benke, evidence collected on the scene indicated Bourland had been attempting to poison the trees by cutting holes in them and pouring poison inside. However he has been unsuccessful, so far.
“The trees didn’t die,” Benke said. “They seem to have leaves and they seem pretty healthy this summer.” However the extent of the damage won’t be known until after the winter, Benke said.
While the trial and fine is the extent of the criminal proceedings that can be brought against Dr. Bourland, Benke says that the town is “evaluating further options.”
Attempts by The Island Eye to contact Dr. Bourland via his attorney were unsuccessful, however he has publicly spoken out against the existence of the vegetation on the accreted land previously. At the Oct. 29, 2015 special council meeting, just a few weeks after he was ticketed for the violation of the tree ordinance, Bourland said the following:
“There’s a difference between accreted land and the vegetation that grows on accreted land. The accreted land has grown because of the jetties that were put in the harbor, that’s what protects the island, trees and vegetation only do a small amount of erosion control. I don’t believe the original land trust was put in place to protect that vegetation.
“The engineering study showed this type of vegetation goes against the principles of dune formation which is the greatest chance for protection from storms. I believe a compromise can be reached to enhance the accreted land property.”