Greenville residents battle developer over century-old cedar trees near Mills Mill

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Greenville resident Eric Brown (pictured above) is spearheading opposition to a developer’s plan to cut down a grove of century-old cedar trees near The Lofts at Mills Mill. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Former U.S. President and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt once said, “To exist as a nation, to prosper as a state, to live as a people, we must have trees.”

It’s a quote that rings true for Greenville resident Eric Brown, who is spearheading opposition to a developer’s plan to cut down a grove of century-old cedar trees near The Lofts at Mills Mill. 

Southern Investment and Development (Southern ID) has proposed building a subdivision of 31 townhomes on 2.67 acres at Guess and Seth streets behind the condominium complex off Church Street.

Brown, a resident at Mills Mill, said nine deodar cedar trees are located along Guess Street where several townhomes and the entrance to the development are proposed.

The trees, according to Brown, are historically significant to the community and were part of the original plantings by a British landscape designer the mill hired during the 19th century.

“I feel deeply that to destroy these irreplaceable specimens would forever alter Greenville’s historic landscape,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, new developments have been proposed to remove the trees so that every possible inch of land can be utilized.”

Last year, Brown issued a petition throughout the surrounding community and collected about 400 signatures in favor of saving the trees. He also presented to the city’s planning commission.

The commission, however, unanimously approved Southern ID’s site plan in November.

“The development plan meets all the city requirements, and in our opinion will be a catalyst for growth on a site that’s sat vacant for many years,” said Chris Laney, managing partner at Southern ID.

Southern ID is currently working with Earth Design, a Greenville-based landscape architecture and environmental design firm, to finalize a landscaping plan for the property before submitting its final development plan to the city for approval, according to Laney.

The nine cedar trees are located along Guess Street, where several townhomes and the entrance to the development are proposed. Photo provided.

Laney said his company plans to save at least two of the property’s cedars and possibly more depending on the final grading plan. The other cedars will be replaced with oak trees and other native tree species.

“These trees not only add value to the surrounding ecosystem but also require less input to perform well in our area,” he said.

While Brown said he understands the developer’s plans to plant new trees, it would likely take generations for them to reach the same size as the cedar trees.

“The composition of the trees as a whole is what makes them extra unique. The placement is on the very edge of the property and creates a rare mini urban forest,” he said. “It’s quite sad regardless that development puts no value on these rare, century-old survivors of Greenville’s past.”

Laney, however, said his company held numerous meetings with the homeowners association board and residents at The Lofts at Mills Mill to inform them of the company’s site plan but wasn’t contacted by Brown or anyone else concerned with the removal of the property’s cedar trees.

Southern ID also spent about six months consulting with the city to configure the best layout for the development and invited all property owners within 500 feet of the project to a meeting at the Kroc Center in downtown Greenville to discuss the site plan before submitting it to the planning department for review, according to Laney.

“Overall, we feel that our communication with the neighboring owners was transparent and well-received, as demonstrated by only one person speaking in opposition to the project at our planning commission presentation,” Laney said.

The Greenville Journal spoke with numerous tenants at Mills Mill who voiced opposition to the removal of the trees and disagreed with Laney’s account of the meetings. 

Laney, however, said the property’s cedar trees “are not native to our region and are not protected by any historic classification.”

The city’s landscape management ordinance does address historic and heritage trees, but it says that “a heritage tree is any tree greater than 20 inches in diameter and a historic tree is any tree greater than 30 inches in diameter and is located within any required setback or buffer area.”

Southern Investment and Development plans to build a subdivision of 31 townhomes on 2.67 acres at Guess and Seth streets behind the condominium complex off Church Street. Photo provided.

A report compiled by TreesGreenville, an environmental nonprofit, shows that the cedar trees along Guess Street range from 19 inches in diameter to 49 inches in diameter.

The parcel of land slated for development is zoned C-2 commercial, however, meaning any trees that are large enough to meet the city’s historic or heritage tree classification must be within a 10-foot setback of the property line to warrant protection, according to Laney. Except for a cedar at the southwest corner of the property, the nearest tree is about 18 feet from the property line.

Brown said the lack of protection for the cedar trees ultimately illustrates a need for revisions to the city’s landscape management ordinance, adding that setbacks and buffer areas essentially defeat the purpose of the city’s historic or heritage tree classification since such trees are rarely within the required distance from the property line.

“Most cities with successful programs for preserving architectural and botanical heritage have fostered great public awareness. One should expect an image-conscious city such as Greenville to lead the way,” Brown said. “Cutting down all the trees on a historic property to squeeze in as much housing as possible is neither creative or resourceful. Imaginative and forward-thinking design should respect the unique historic integrity of the site and incorporate clever planning to allow these trees to be a rare feature instead of an obstacle.”

Mari Steinbach, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said Greenville, like other cities, works to “strike a balance between the protection of natural systems and encouraging quality development within their jurisdictions.”  

She added that setbacks and buffer areas are “time-honored and legally defensible design incursions on private property that provide for the overall public good.”

While the city hasn’t considered expanding its landscape ordinance to include trees on private property, it plans to conduct a systemwide tree count in the coming years to determine what percentage of 20-inch-or-greater trees fall within rights of way, public property, private property, or buffers and setbacks, according to Steinbach.  

“Until such a comprehensive inventory is made, it is not possible to determine the efficacy of the clause,” she said.

In the meantime, Brown said he plans to continue raising awareness about the cedar trees in hopes that more people might voice opposition to their removal before construction begins.

Laney said his company plans to begin grading the property sometime this winter or spring.

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