The Secession Oak in Bluffton is so named because in 1844, local politician R. Barnwell Rhett gathered a crowd beneath the tree to encourage secession from the Union. The tree is located on what is now private property. COURTESY BLUFFTON HISTORICAL PRESER

“It’s bent and gnarled and it’s got character. It’s survived everything but the chain saw – yet.”

When a tree in a local gated community was recently (and tentatively) targeted for removal in favor of a building extension, the person who described the tree above also said the proposed addition could be designed differently, and the tree – which is more than 200 years old and considered a “grand” tree – could remain.

When it comes to development and expansion, trees get a great deal of official attention. Both Beaufort County and the town of Bluffton have strict regulations concerning preservation, clearing and reforestation. Those who fail to follow the regulations find themselves in trouble and fined.

“The regulations vary from place to place, the size of tree, and the type of tree,” said Bluffton spokesperson Debbie Szpanka. “If someone wants to cut down a tree, the first thing they need to review are the planning documents which are associated with the property.”

There are three categories of trees when it comes to preservation or removal, based on the Beaufort County Community Development Code (CDC) Resource Protection Standards: grand, specimen, and invasive.

The ordinance specifically references what is called grand trees – those that are exceptionally large for their species. It is evidence that in the case of trees, size matters. A grand tree “represents an individual tree that contributes aesthetically to the region’s visual ‘sense of place’ and serves as a seed stock for future generations.”

A seed stock ensures the continuity of what has made Bluffton a Tree City USA Community since 2012.

Certainly one of the most renowned grand trees and seed stocks in Bluffton is the Secession Oak, a live oak that was old in 1718 when the Lord Proprietors divided this area into baronies, including the Devil’s Elbow Barony – what is now Bluffton.

The tree gained notoriety when locals gathered under its branches in 1844 to protest high federal tariffs, and local politician R. Barnwell Rhett began to preach secession from the Union.

The parents of Bluffton native Emmett McCracken bought their property in Stock Farm in 1958, and it happened to be the lot next to the oak. After McCracken came home from the Army in 1989, the oak tree’s lot came up for sale, and his family bought it for a relative who was coming to live in Bluffton.

“The tree was an excellent extra piece to it,” McCracken said.

A number of tours and seminars in Bluffton have taken a trip to the tree, under which the lecturer goes through the whole story of the tariff and the protests.

The oak is estimated to be about 400 years old and about 75 to 80 feet tall. McCracken said there was never any concerted effort made to care for the Secession Oak.

“The tree just did what it needed to do,” McCracken said, “but it’s an interesting thing. I don’t know where it dates from, but electrical lines go through the top of the Secession Oak and when SCE&G gave it a periodic tree trimming – which it did every four or five years – you can get a real gathering around that tree to make sure they didn’t get carried away with their tree trimming. Once the truck pulled up, the neighbors came out to watch what they were doing.”

What determines a grand tree is its DBH – the diameter of its trunk at breast height, or approximately 4.3 feet from the ground.

These local species are considered grand trees if they have a diameter equal to or greater than 24 inches DBH: Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), and Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris); equal to or greater than 36 inches DBH: Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda), Slash Pine (Pinus ellitoi), and Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata).

All other species with a DBH equal to or greater than 30 inches are also considered grand trees, with the exception of invasive species, which are listed in the CDC.

The undesirable invasive or non-native species push out native plants. Amanda Flake, the county’s arborist, said that the County Community Development office where she works follows the “Invasive Plants of Southern Forests Field Guide” produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In order to remove a grand tree, a permit has to be submitted through the municipality or the county where the tree is located. The application lists the reasons why a grand tree may be removed. A certified arborist must determine that the tree is dead, diseased, hollow, or has another condition that poses a hazard to people or structures on that lot or an adjoining lot.

If approved, once the tree is removed, it has to be replaced with a 2.5-inch minimum “caliper tree” of the same species. Caliper tree refers to the width of a tree trunk using a caliper.

It might be fun to gauge the age of your favorite tree with a simple formula found on hunker.com. To measure the DBH, take the circumference of the tree at breast height (a rope is helpful), then use a calculator to divide the circumference measurement, expressed in inches, by pi: 3.1416.

When you have the diameter, the first 10 inches indicate an age of 76 years. Each inch after that adds six-and-a-half years up to age 154. After that, each inch adds six years.

You might discover that you have a grand tree on your property.

For more information on the rules for removing or planting trees under the Beaufort County jurisdiction, check the Community Development section of the Beaufort County Municipal Code at library.municode.com/sc/beaufort_county/codes.

For information on Bluffton tree regulations, check Section 3.22 of the Unified Development Code.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.