By Rob Byko for Island Eye News
Things got hot quickly last week when Sullivan’s Island residents returned home to find tree-trucks and wood chippers buzzing along Jasper Blvd. The unwelcome guests took to the trees in elevated buckets with their chainsaws blazing. The long line of trucks worked in orchestration to prune the trees in accordance with ANSI-300 standards, assuring the overhead power lines were unencumbered.
To the homeowners’ shock, however, the resulting scene on Jasper resembled “Nightmare on Elm Street”, as few of the island’s beloved live oaks were left unscathed. The gentle giants didn’t stand a chance. The tree canopies were left drawn and quartered, many losing as much as a third of their previous mass.
Local residents, and a few city council members, were taken aback by the severity of this year’s pruning, a task undertaken by the public service utility SC&EG (now Dominion Energy) every five years. Even though the work is routine, many long-time residents couldn’t recall a time when such drastic cutting left the trees so decimated.
Sullivan’s Island resident, Karen Byko (full disclosure, this writer’s spouse) was so sickened by the scene that she lodged a complaint with Dominion, and posted pictures and calls to action via social media and email to her contacts. After repeated tweets, Dominion sent representatives from Lewis Tree Service, Dominion’s contractor, to her door. As they explained, Lewis is contracted by Dominion solely to meet safety standards, and not to cut the trees to meet beauty standards.
They said that it is the homeowner’s responsibility to beautify the tree after they leave, or to address any safety concerns caused by sagging limbs no longer supported by a strong core. They claimed that they are required to cut the trees so aggressively, as Dominion has the island’s trees on a five year rotation.
Being wholly unsatisfied, Ms. Byko continued to pressure Dominion for a direct response. Representative Clay Chaplin agreed to meet with her on Jasper on Thursday, August 1st. In the meantime, she went to work rallying her contacts on Sullivan’s, Isle of Palms, and Mount Pleasant, as well as elected officials.
Even with the last minute notice, over 20 concerned area residents and elected officials assembled at the corner of Station 28 ½ and Jasper, including SC Rep. Mike Sotille, Sullivan’s Island Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Chauncey Clark, and Andy Benke, Sullivan’s Island Town Administrator. SC Senator Chip Campsen was unable to attend, but his office was in contact after the meeting to report back to the senator.
Council members Bachman Smith and Sarah Church were also unable to attend, but expressed their support. After the meeting, Ms. Byko also updated Rep. Krystle Simmons who has been in ongoing contact with Dominion on this issue.
Ms. Byko kicked off the meeting by expressing the collective concerns to Dominion representative, Mr. Chaplin (Mark Branham joined in progress).
She let him know that the group respected and supported their need to meet critical and necessary safety standards, but that it was the hope of the group that Dominion would consider adopting a more frequent cutting schedule, so that they could cut less aggressively.
Concerned residents shared their outrage over the devastation to trees adjacent to their property, the overnight change to the ecology in their garden from deep shade to full sun, the impact to the look and feel of our community and our property values, and the impact to our barrier island of losing the protection of strong oak trees during a hurricane. Residents who lived through Hugo recounted how their homes survived in part because they were protected by live oaks.
Sallie Pritchard pointed out that cuts made to a tree on the property she manages at the corner of Sta. 28.5 & Jasper have jeopardized the health of a major limb,
which now sags over the street corner. “A truck may turn the corner too tightly and tear the limb away entirely. This creates a liability problem for me as property owner, but Dominion Energy says this limb falls outside their purview. How is that right?”
Tal Askins, who lives on Jasper, asked why, he as a homeowner or in his capacity as a builder, is being held to significantly higher standards than Dominion. Mr. Benke explained that the homeowner is covered by local ordinances, while trees in the right-of-way or that have grown into the power lines are regulated by the SC Public Service Commission. Mr. Askins said he had an arborist friend stop by his house, and after taking a look at Dominion’s work to one of his trees, exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy. Take that tree out. If that tree makes it, it’ll be a miracle. You’ve killed it basically.”
Andy Benbow commented to Mr. Chaplin, “This five year schedule that you’re on…that’s just because you don’t want to spend the money of doing it every two years or so. You’re making a choice. Dominion is making a choice as a corporation that is affecting us in a very negative way.”
Karen Coste commented, “I would like for everybody to go down Officer’s Row, which is the most charming street on Sullivan’s Island, and those oaks, every one of them is a live oak. It is magnificent… it impacts the value of those homes. And, when you look at the wire and you look at those wonderful trees. And you are going to butcher that street. And, that should not happen.” Mr. Chaplin, responded, “Probably not.” He explained that ANSI-300 standards allow for exceptions to cutting to minimum safety standards, including, among other things, for “large leaders,” which he defined as 8”, the species, and how long a tree has been there. It was unclear how a homeowner might get a tree adjacent to their property labelled as an exception, although Mr. Benke directed residents to contact Dominion with any specific concerns.
A local tree expert phoned in to Ms. Byko near the close of the meeting. He explained, “It’s past the time of year for hard pruning of these live oaks as it is detrimental to the trees’ health.” Continuing, he explained “Trees go dormant during the long, hot summer to conserve water. Severe cuts to the canopy can deplete the tree of water reserves stored in its limbs. The tree, in a struggle to survive, responds by forcing new growth. This stresses the tree and the new foliage is susceptible to insect infestation and disease. The consequences can be devastating.” He concluded “The holes and tunnels that are created also make the tree unbalanced and susceptible to damage from wind shear.”
In the end, Dominion representatives remained unmoved by the residents’, and their customers’, concerns over the butchering of their majestic live oaks and other trees, and indicated no willingness to discuss making any modifications to processes to address the SI group’s requests to balance Dominion’s legitimate safety objectives with island residents’ legitimate aesthetic and safety objectives.
There was another opportunity for local residents of Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms to address Dominion Energy representatives directly on Wednesday, Aug. 8 from 5-7 p.m. at the IOP Rec Center. The public was invited to attend.