Legislator attempts to fell tree plan
Sen. Larry Grooms said Monday he planned to introduce a bill requiring S.C. DOT to submit a report to a joint legislative committee before proceeding with any clearing such as the clear-cutting proposed for the I-26 median between Summerville and I-95.
His bill would require DOT to submit a report for comment to the Joint Transportation Review Committee, which he chairs, Grooms said.
Grooms said he favors installing cable barriers to stop cars that drive off the roadway. The trees, however, are part of what make the Lowcountry special, he said.
“Once they’re cut, they’re cut. There’s no going back. … I don’t want our state to look just like every other place,” he said.
The S.C. DOT Commission decided last month to remove the trees from the 80-foot median as a safety measure.
Last week, the Coastal Conservation League sent a letter to Gov. Nikki Haley asking her to review the decision.
Because parts of the median are wetlands, the DOT will need to conduct an environmental assessment, the league’s attorney said.
As part of the assessment, the state needs to show the impacts and costs of its chosen option for improving safety are “absolutely unavoidable,” attorney Jefferson Leath wrote.
“SCDOT has so far failed to do this, which will open the door for appeals of any issued permits,” he wrote.
Former Sen. Arthur Ravenel, Jr., fought for those trees, Leath wrote.
Leath cited legislation spearheaded by Ravenel that limited DOT’s authority to remove vegetation from medians and protect forested areas from “overzealous traffic engineers.”
“SCDOT’s current proposal is a clear violation of the intent of this law,” he wrote.
That law was loosened last year so DOT could perform maintenance outside the 30-foot right-of-way, Grooms said.
The law had prevented DOT from undertaking maintenance on enhancement projects like the Exit 199 beautification, and the General Assembly had to pass a special bill for each project allowing the DOT to do the work, Grooms said.
Legislators changed the law after DOT promised to use its power judiciously, he said.
But DOT’s lawyers said that law never applied to the current situation.
That law addressed only mowing, and this is a safety project, DOT said.
Its highway design manual uses national standards to prescribe “clear zone” distances for various projects, DOT spokesman Pete Poore said, and those standards can require removal of trees to a depth of 45 feet from the interstate.
Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, issued a brief statement concerning the letter from the league.
"It is our understanding that SCDOT thoroughly weighed the safety concerns and high number of fatalities in that stretch of I-26 along with all options to preserve trees in that dangerous area, and concluded that safety of drivers had to remain their highest priority,” he said.