A development a few hundred feet from the more than 1,400-year-old Angel Oak will face its first real opposition at the next meeting of the City of Charleston's Zoning Board of Appeals. A handful of locals who missed the news as the project wound through the city's approval process have jumped into action, but they'll be challenging one of the last votes the city will take on the nearly 21-acre, 600-unit Angel Oak Village.
Development of the large wooded lot that runs along three sides of the Angel Oak has been batted around since 2001. The City Council and the city's Planning Commission have signed off on three separate plans, including the most recent this summer. That approval followed months of outreach by the developers, meeting with Johns Island residents in public forums and individually with neighbors and several City Council members. The final vote on the project was nearly unanimous, with the one dissenting vote from Kathleen Wilson, who did not sit down with developers. Though the city's review and approval of the project had been advertised at least three times this year (never mind the past approvals in 2001 and 2005), it wasn't until the local newspaper's report on the council's final approval that several key opponents first learned of the plans and began organizing against it, creating www.SaveTheAngelOak.com.
"I was just blown away by it," says Keith Bradshaw, who bought the website, and also gobbled up www.AngelOakVillage.com. "I had been taking the tree for granted. It never occurred to me that they'd develop so close to it."
On Oct. 1, the zoning board will hear a request from developer Robert DeMoara to remove 25 protected trees. City zoning officials are expected to give their endorsement. Bradshaw and others are expected to argue for the protection of these trees, which a city-approved arborist says are diseased, damaged, or dangerous to future residents. DeMoara also says the project includes preserving about 30 trees per acre, double the city's standards. But the oppositions' gripe is less about the particular trees in question and more about the fact that the vast woodland will be touched at all.
"I don't think there should be any development," says Samantha Siegel. "It's such a sacred area for so many people."
The argument against the project is kind of like NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), if your backyard was acres of woods and your home was an iconic tree. The Angel Oak is almost like a second home for Siegel. She spent three months writing a book at its trunk. These days, she spends her time at the tree alerting visitors to the plans for the neighboring development. People have spread ashes there — one woman even left her placenta. The city uses the winding trunks as the setting for an annual Piccolo Spoleto event.
A wooded protective zone resolved city concerns, but opponents are unconvinced. The city-appointed arborist, Don Ham, has worked with the Angel Oak in the past and was brought in to ensure the tree's protection.
"There is no question in my mind [the tree is safe]," Ham says. The development will leave an additional 150-foot buffer around the city's two-acre park. "The existing buffer is as large as what would be recommended in most situations and we've essentially doubled that."
Siegel understands the tree itself isn't threatened with being torn down, but she wants more expert studies of the impact on the Angel Oak. She worries the development's potential to either starve or oversaturate the tree can't be determined. Opponents also claim the development could imperil local bird habitats and other wildlife, and that the Angel Oak experience will be changed forever. Siegel says you'll be able to see the development from the tree, though the sheer distance (more than a football field) from the tree makes that unlikely.
For his part, DeMoara has spent the last three years redesigning the project. Plans for a large grocery store and parking lot were scrapped for a village style development with a maximum of 600 residential units and 80,000 square feet of retail space, developed over a 10-year period.
The project has all the things that city planners swoon for, like mixed uses, affordable housing, and buildings built right on the street to encourage walking and slow traffic. It's also one of the first projects to take part in the city's plans for a coordinated Johns Island development, including nodes of concentrated density, called gathering places.
The hydrologist has provided an innovative stormwater plan that would keep most runoff within the development.
DeMoara is also looking at ways to improve the park, possibly by helping the city relocate the parking lot to an area that will be left undeveloped. The move would take visitor traffic to the site off of the ancient tree's roots. The developer also hangs his hat on assistance to Sea Island Comprehensive Healthcare. The group was able to keep its head above water due to the $3.5 million sale of the land to DeMoara. The group will also get a share of the profits from the development.
More than 5,000 have signed Seigel's online petition against the development, which will surely be presented at the zoning board meeting. Siegel is also encouraging people to write letters of concern regarding the wetlands permit that will be required later from the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control.
"We want to keep putting (the development) off until we're ready to present an argument about the importance of the area," she says.
At the zoning board hearing, Bradshaw will also present a letter the Fish and Wildlife Service sent to DHEC in 2005 suggesting the area would be better left preserved.
The letter from Joseph Cockrell, a local acting supervisor at the time, first speaks to the impact on wetlands, which DeMoura says won't be as great under the updated plan. Cockrell also wrote that the Angel Oak buffer was inadequate. "The city, the monument, and the wildlife in the area would be better served by conserving the entire tract of land proposed for development," Cockrell wrote.
DeMoura notes that the property has been available for preservation in the past and was passed over.
"If somebody wanted to buy this property for conservation, it would be protected," he says.
In fact, the city actually considered purchasing the land for conservation in 2005 before a compromise was reached on the development. Seigel has sought out partnerships with conservation groups and says she's considering any alternative to the development. Meanwhile, Bradshaw is hoping to continue to foster opposition through the website. He says he's toned down the site since he first launched it this summer, expecting that the scope of the development will say all he needs to say.
"I want people to be shocked on their own," he says.