The Great Tree Debate

Town’s treatment, definition of grand trees at center of hot political topic

By Charlie Morrison | Community Editor

The issue of how municipalities serving James Island should preserve the island’s natural environment has bubbled, boiled, and simmered under the surface of the political pot of soup being cooked across the island.

Occasionally the issue has boiled over, with some politicians sensing it as politically radioactive. But summed up, the topic of trees —specifically what the current Town administration defines as a “Grand Tree” — has emerged as one of the hottest topics of an unseasonably cool summer here on James Island, politically and meteorologically.

John C. Lowe 1

John Lowe lives just feet from the roadway’s intersection with Harbor View Road and joins a large contingent of James Islanders in defending trees like this 26-inch Live Oak, located only feet from his property at the intersection set to be felled as part of the Charleston County RoadWise project to widen Harbor View Road.

The issue most recently bubbled over at the Aug. 8 meeting of the Town’s Planning Commission. The body ultimately voted by a 3-2 margin to change the Town’s definition of a Grand Tree from that the status quo definition of all trees with diameter breast heights (DBH) exceeding 24 inches, to that of 18 inches, excepting those of the pine, sweet gum, and Chinese tallow species.

The close vote sends the matter back before Town Council. Against the wishes of Mayor Bill Woolsey, the main governing body of the Town will again reconsider the Town’s official definition of a grand tree in future meetings.

Before those meetings are to convene, however, the Town’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) will vet the matter of another such grand tree, a 26-inch Live Oak tree that Charleston County RoadWise program requested a variance to remove as part of their Harbor View Road improvements project.

On Tuesday (after press time) RoadWise’s Molli LeMin presented her case to remove the Live Oak, which will allow the footprint of the project to progress past the intersection of Harbor View Road and Stiles Drive, the intersection at which the tree is located, unimpeded.

Regardless of LeMin’s arguments, area residents like Stiles Drive homeowner John Lowe have taken the issue of Harbor View Road and traffic personally.

“There’s no way that road’s going to interfere with this tree. They’re saying it’s going to block the view, but in reality it doesn’t block anything but this,” said Lowe, pointing to a SCE&G installation tucked neatly behind the massive tree before turning to the root of the problem on Harbor View Road, the existing traffic situation.

“That being said, the people who currently use this road as a cut-through to Stiles Point Elementary need to slow down,” said Lowe. “I’ve got grandchildren that live here and it ain’t going to take but one kid to fall over on a bike when a parent’s running late before it’s all over.”

Last week, the tree issue bubbled up at the Thursday, Aug. 15 meeting of James Island Town Council where a number of speakers addressed a resolution that was on the agenda that would exempt trees within the footprint of a home.

In the end Town Councilman Leonard Blank, who’d suggested the change to the agenda, had it the resolution removed in the hours leading up to the meeting. Blank, knowing he hadn’t the votes to see it passed, pulled back his resolution for the time being. But that didn’t stop a number of James Island activists from expressing their views during the meeting’s public commentary section.

Former Town Councilwoman Robin Welch addressed the issue. “This resolution is a slap in the face to all who have sought compromise for our grand trees,” said Welch, who stated that for she and the many she represents, officially or otherwise, the Town’s acceptance of the 18-inch DBH standard of grand trees is necessary until further workshops on the issue could be convened.

“There can be no fairer compromise between our Town’s original, 12- inch definition and the existing definition of 24 inches and we are grateful to the three members of Council who supported this stop-gap solution,” said Welch. “Sadly, (this) resolution would take the teeth out of the small victory we have managed to obtain.”

For more information on the issue or to voice your opinion, go to the Mayor’s blog at Alternately, you can call Town Hall at 795-4141 and ask to give your views on tree control, or send an email to


© 2013 Wiser Time Publishing, Inc.

3 thoughts on “The Great Tree Debate


    Interesting that this guy did not come last night!

    I think RW did all they could to save the tree – but I did get several calls yesterday afternoon from folks saying ‘can’t we somehow save it?’

    I understand why BZA ruled the way the did – RW seemed to have looked hard at trying to save it.

    Good to see you last night! 🙂

    • Susan,
      First of all, thank you very much for your kind words about my piece. If the guy you’re referring to is Jonathan Yates, the head man at the law firm that argued their case last night, he never comes to anything he’s involved in. I’ve never gotten him to speak to me on the record about a property developer he was representing, which is fine and perfectly within his rights. In my opinion however, is a gargantuan PR blunder to be anywhere but out in front of anything even remotely controversial on James Island.
      Regarding last night’s BZA meeting, I was remarking how you’ve grown as a public speaker/activist, esp. in your delivery. I liked how you kept on making your point even after your time had run out, you’d left the podium and were walking back to your seat. It was well done in my view.
      It sucks that the right of way line is so close to missing the tree, but I tend to agree with you in saying that CC RoadWise, as well as the Town BZA, put forth a good faith effort to avoid the tree, but in the end it seems this is the best fit for the intersection, the project, and the n’hood, which needs an intersection that’s done up to specs.
      Thanks for reading (and writing) Susan!

      • Charlie – I am talking about Mr. John Lowe (from your story)
        not coming last night re. the grand tree…not about Yates. Thanks for the compliment. Did you notice the giddy celebration on Woolsey’s part after the BZA voted to approve the variance to remove the big tree? I think he likes to cut down trees!

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