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Hilton Head: the canopy view.

The first thing newcomers notice about the South Carolina town of Hilton Head Island is exactly what they don't notice, namely buildings. Thanks to a painstakingly crafted tree ordinance, the town has been uncommonly successful in hiding its residential and commercial buildings behind screens of green.

Enforcement of Hilton Head's tree ordinance is the responsibility of Natural Resources Administrator Sally Krebs, a tall blonde-haired herpetologist with a master's degree from Rutgers and a Ph.D. nearly completed. Her straight-talking, no-nonsense manner seems perfectly suited for the job.

A story she likes to tell about a snake hunt she went on for a course on reptiles demonstrates that Krebs is clearly up to the job of enforcing the ordinance. We had these three-pronged rakes used for catching snakes, and I came upon a large king snake," she relates. "I was furiously trying to pin it down, but kept missing. For some reason, it kept crawling right toward my feet. Finally, I threw down the rake and screamed. That's when it slipped past me down into a hole. I had been standing right in front of its burrow."

Krebs vowed never to embarrass herself in front of her instructor again, and true to her promise, on her very next snake hunt she caught a six-foot diamondback rattler.

She brings the same kind of determination to enforcing Hilton Head's tree ordinance. Despite the potential for conflicts, she has met with little resistance. We tried to educate everyone about the ordinance's provisions soon after it was passed," says Krebs, by conducting a meeting for those in the construction and landscaping industries."

Like many of the nation's municipalities, Hilton Head places great value on its trees. But this island community is maintaining its woodland resources in a manner somewhat different from other towns. Where other communities have traditionally concentrated on the ornamental aspects of tree plantings, Hilton Head has focused on the overall ecological picture by maintaining whole forest canopies.

How is it possible that a town can have large open spaces with intact native forests when in other municipalities every square inch seems to be snapped up and converted to concrete or asphalt? The answer lies in the island's natural setting and diverse history.

Hilton Head is an Atlantic Coast barrier island, bordered by beaches on the east and pristine tidal salt marshes on the other sides. With its subtropical climate, the island supports a southeastern maritime forest ecosystem of evergreens and salt-tolerant species.

Prior to the Civil War, many of Hilton Head's forests were leveled for crops. With the abolition of slavery, the island was farmed by newly impoverished plantation owners and the freed black population. Other tracts were reclaimed by nature as their wealthy owners used them for hunting preserves. During the early 20th century, these preserves were increasingly managed for timber, especially slash and longleaf pines.

By the 1950s, Hilton Head Island was extensively covered with second-and third-growth. Behind the oceanfront dunes were magnificent stands of live oaks, mixed with prolific groupings of Sabal palmetto, the state tree. Moving progressively inland, the live oaks and palmettos were mixed with laurel and water oaks, redbay, hickories, sweetgum, and, in moist areas and swamps, red maple and swamp tupelo.

The stage was set for what became a model for modern residential development on barrier islands. Utilizing land his family owned, a young developer named Charles Fraser began implementing a plan to create a wealthy retirement and second-home community on Hilton Head. The intent was for homeowners to live side-by-side with nature, a major innovation for developers in the 1950s.

At the time the idea seemed absurd. The island was considered a remote wilderness suited mainly to mosquitos, alligators, and viciously biting no-see-ums. One had to go out of one's way to reach the nearest mainland and then take a ferry. After that, it was still a good distance to the south end where Fraser's community, known as Sea Pines Plantation, was taking shape.

The idea caught on, however, and although 30-plus years have brought a few bumpy times, Hilton Head has evolved from a formerly exclusive development to a world-class resort. Its success is partly attributable to the protection given its forests. Each new development sets up a review board to enforce strict covenants that govern not only the style of buildings but also the way they're sited among the surrounding trees. Lots are not to be bulldozed flat and then replanted with scrawny nursery specimens. Live oaks that have taken 100 or more years to attain their present stature and beauty are considered irreplaceable, so developers take pains to build around them. These huge old oaks draped with ethereal wisps of spanish moss increase property values, never mind whether the lots are waterfront.

But it was one of the rare exceptions to this pioneering concept of stewardship-in which extensive clearing as well as shoddy design and construction took place-that raised the ire of Hilton Head's citizens. After much research and legwork, they voted to incorporate as a town. With a precedent of sparing established trees already set, the town moved forward with a tree ordinance, placing the concept of protection in writing once and for all.

The challenge was to enact a law that would be acceptable to all interests but that would still retain a substantial tree canopy. This was no easy task.

Because the town is partly comprised of private developments with covenants that offer strong tree protection on single-family residential lots, Hilton Head's ordinance does not apply to these. Instead, it deals with all other development-multifamily, commercial, and public projects-regardless of whether such projects occur inside or outside the gates of a private development.

Prior to town approval of a construction permit, an owner must submit a tree-approval application. This must be accompanied by a survey showing any existing trees with a diameter at breast height (DBH) of six inches or more. The species must be noted, and the survey must have taken place within two years of the application.

At this point, a key provision of the tree ordinance comes into play. When the ordinance was being drafted, its authors attempted to define a minimum standard by which to judge all future construction sites. "A lot of input was received, and a number of sites were looked at," says Krebs. "We liked the tree coverage on certain sites, and from these made subjective decisions with respect to the optimum."

Under the ordinance, native trees were grouped into four categories based upon their importance to the environment. In the first category are hardwoods, endangered species, and the broad-leaved evergreen overstory; in the second are overstory hardwoods and evergreen understory species; the third includes cone-bearing evergreens; and the fourth consists of ornamentals and palmetto trees.

Each category was then given a numerical rating, with Category I having the highest value and Category IV the lowest. Finally, these parameters were plugged into a formula that resulted in a minimum standard of 900 adjusted caliper inches (ACI) per acre. ACI were defined as the total diameter inches (measured at breast height instead of the nurseryman's use of caliper to mean a measurement of planting stock) in a category times the value factor (numerical rating) for that category.

After the numbers are compiled, a computer considers the original vegetation on the site and the number of ACI an owner or developer proposes to clear. Then the number necessary to bring the site up to the minimum requirement (900 ACI) is determined.

"The amazing thing," says Krebs, "is that this minimum standard of 900 ACI has worked remarkably well. Out of nearly 200 projects supervised since the law went into effect, only three or four have had problems."

In addition to the minimum standard provision, the ordinance also requires that all replacement trees be at least 10 feet tall or have a trunk of not less than two caliper inches when planted for Categories I and II, and at least six feet tall or with a trunk of one caliper inch or greater for trees in Categories III and IV. In order to keep a site as ecologically pure as possible, any replacement trees must be from the same category as those that were removed.

The above requirements provide a strong incentive for preserving native species from the start. The reason is that the owner, upon submitting the original survey, may also list those trees that measure less than the required six-inch DBH. These smaller diameters can then be used to count toward the minimum standard for the property. By leaving these saplings and small trees intact, the owner saves money later by reducing the number of trees that must be replaced, as well as helping to preserve the site ecology

Drafters of the ordinance were careful not to carry replacement provisions to extremes. Following construction of buildings and parking lots, only so much open space remains for planting, and these areas are sometimes already covered by a natural tree canopy. Attempting to replace the total ACI lost to construction sites by planting replacements in these undisturbed areas would often create overcrowding and unwanted competition. For this reason, final decisions concerning tree replacements are made only after full consideration is given to the conditions relevant to a particular site.

Along with the permit requirements, the ordinance transfers responsibility for tree maintenance to all purchasers. If a lot has been built on and is later sold, the new owner must replace any trees that die from insects, disease, or human-caused damage. Much more leeway is given in the case of trees lost to tornadoes or hurricanes. In addition to the enforcement efforts of Sally Krebs, another regulatory agent called the Corridor Review Committee is responsible for maintaining the aesthetics of U.S. Highway 278-the William Hilton Parkway, named for the English naval officer who first charted the island's coastline. The parkway is the only major artery for cross- island traffic.

For nearly 30 years, residents driving the William Hilton Parkway were accustomed to passing a virtual wilderness. Business growth along this corridor occurred very slowly, with what seemed to be insignificant tree clearing. But as the rate of commercial development began to increase in the 1980s, fears that the parkway was headed toward suburban strip development gave rise to the regulatory committee.

Landscaping and sign construction, among other things, are closely scrutinized by this committee, and pruning restrictions govern the amount of canopy that can be trimmed. With this added tree protection, the committee then expanded its authority to the island's other major routes.

Krebs and others would now like to see greater protection for the natural growth beneath the tree canopy along these arteries. Currently, native vegetation-shrubs, vines, and herbs-can be mowed or cleared and replaced with ornamental shrubs and lawns, which then require intensive maintenance. The native undergrowth requires no irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, and it supports a surprisingly diverse chain of wildlife from microorganisms up through insects, reptiles, amphibians, and rodents such as mice and marsh rabbits, which are preyed upon by several hawk and owl species along the highways. Raccoons, possums, bobcats, and deer have been seen on sections where sufficient cover remains.

Consistent with her belief in environmental education, Krebs has successfully encouraged property owners and architects alike to leave dead or diseased trees standing where there is no chance of them falling on buildings or cars, or where little danger exists of their affecting the health of other trees. (Dead pines are removed to prevent the spread of destructive pine borers.)

These snags are ecologically useful. As various wood-digesting fungi, beetles, and crustaceans work to decompose the woody tissues, they attract insects, lizards, tree frogs, etc., which in turn draw desirable songbirds such as titmice, bluebirds, chickadees, and wrens. Soft tree centers are extremely inviting to several species of cavity-nesting woodpeckers, which find less incentive for carving their homes into the siding of human structures.

Not all of the tree-saving attempts been successful. In the years before the ordinance, contractors may have thought they were protecting trees by simply leaving them standing. But the damage done to the bark or root systems during construction was often sufficient to weaken the trees, resulting in death two or three years later.

In addition, Krebs points out trees from older projects that managed to live but are not thriving. Now the town enforces restrictions for preventing compaction of the roots, scarring of bark, storage of materials or filling around trunks, etc., by requiring barriers as far out as the leaf drip line where possible. If fill must be placed around a tree, special steps are taken to provide gravel and a network of perforated pipes at the original grade, with a vertical pipe to connect this network with the roots. Proper pruning and fertilizing are also required.

Sally Krebs has worked hard to inform the public and the construction industry about ways of protecting the town's stately treasures. Overall, the trees in Hilton Head's forests and developments are in pretty healthy shape," she says. And it is clear that this snake collector intends to keep them that way.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Author:Gale, Bob
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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