Young activist leads push to save Charleston oak

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 18, 2013 

— The centuries old oak tree with the broad branches seemed destined for a slow death when a plan to build apartments around it surfaced – at least that’s how Samantha Siegel saw it.

So Siegel got busy. She spent five years working to stop the project and protect land next to the famed Angel Oak on Johns Island south of Charleston.

She fought a stubborn developer and government regulators and she butted heads with the city of Charleston, all while building support from both neighbors and well-funded conservationists who also loved the Angel Oak.

On Thursday, a local land trust will close a deal protecting 17 acres around the Angel Oak from ever being developed. Many say Siegel was the force that ultimately led to the accord.

For Siegel, Thursday’s event marks an achievement unparalleled in her life.

“Certainly, this is my life’s dream coming true, which I don’t think many people get to say,’’ she said with a smile.

“We can all sleep easier when the papers are signed. That will be a huge thing for the health of the tree.”

Siegel and conservationists say the preservation accord could build momentum to save another 17 acres near the tree that is not included in the deal. That property could be developed, but discussions are under way with a landowner even as community support builds to better protect the Angel Oak.

The Angel Oak, believed to be at least 300 years old but possibly older, is one of South Carolina’s natural wonders, drawing crowds locally and from around the country to view the giant hardwood. It is about 65 feet tall with some branches so long it could shade the parking lot of a shopping center. The big live oak is owned by the city of Charleston, but much of the land encircling the tree has remained in private hands.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Lowcountry Open Land Trust have played major roles in raising money to buy property around the Angel Oak and prevent development from threatening the tree’s health. But conservationists say the scrappy Siegel provided the spark.

“Samantha has been great, such a stalwart,’’ land trust director Elizabeth Hagood said. “She’s gotten a lot of backers to rally around and be partners in the whole effort to protect this tree.’’

The 31-year-old Siegel, a former Sierra Club employee and waitress, is the daughter of a California writer and a Washington, D.C., lawyer who today lives at Seabrook Island. Her father, Howard Siegel, is a nationally known attorney who has fought the National Rifle Association and has appeared on news magazine shows, such as “60 Minutes.’’

She says both parents inspired her, but Samantha Siegel’s relentless push to save land near the Angel Oak also is because she’s grown to love the Charleston area. She grew up between family homes in Washington and the Bahamas. Only when she went to school at the College of Charleston did she realize she’d found her real home.

Over coffee at a downtown Charleston Starbucks this week, the intense but friendly Siegel reflected on how she first got involved with the Angel Oak effort and why she thinks it was important.

The tree already was protected in a small city-owned park when developer Robert DeMoura’s plan to build nearby surfaced in a 2008 newspaper story. At one point, DeMoura wanted to erect about 600 apartments and develop retail stores on 30-40 acres just outside the Angel Oak park’s boundaries.

But to Siegel, that kind of project was too dangerous for a tree believed to be at least three centuries old. Not only would the project disrupt the area, but it could soak up precious groundwater the Angel Oak needed to survive, she figured.

So Siegel launched an online petition and began to slowly build support to stop the development. Soon she had a major ally in Lorna Young Hattler, a Johns Island resident who felt the same way about the gargantuan tree she had visited as a child.

“It was really hard at first,’’ Siegel said of initial reaction to the effort. “A lot of people had the reaction of “OK, it already is in a park. What do you mean?’ But with the online petition, things began to change.’’

Hattler, 50, said Siegel’s energy was impressive. Once, the two of them spent a blazing summer day walking the area near the tree in an attempt to prove that DeMoura needed a federal wetlands permit before he could begin construction.

Siegel and Hattler documented evidence that wetlands on the property were abundant and well within the federal government’s authority to require a permit. Eventually, government regulators required DeMoura to seek the wetlands permit, which environmental groups fought.

Conservation groups challenged environmental permits in state court, delaying plans enough to stop the project. DeMoura eventually ran low on money and a bank foreclosed on the land. That intensified efforts by conservationists to buy the land from the bank.

This year, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust helped raise about $3.6 million to acquire the 17 acres near the tree from the bank, even as it seeks to protect the other 17 acres. State and local agencies contributed – as did thousands of ordinary citizens who stuffed jars at a local Piggly Wiggly with nickels, quarters and dimes.

Siegel said she hopes the other property that faces development also can be protected. It’s been a long fight, but many Charleston area leaders have begun to realize how important the Angel Oak is, she said. City officials who first supported the development now have changed their tune, she said.

“I went from being the person that drove everyone crazy to them standing up and thanking me at County Council and Mayor (Joe) Riley shaking my hand and saying, ‘How can I help?’” Siegel said this week.

“I was saying all this for a long time and no one was listening. I’m so thankful people are finally listening. It’s been amazing.’’

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