Don't try to tell Samantha Siegel that anything's a done deal. If she's against it, she'll fight tooth and nail until the last stone is laid.
In July 2008, the then-26-year-old picked up the newspaper to read that a housing development had been all-but-finalized on the land surrounding the Angel Oak tree on Johns Island.
The famous live oak, the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi River, held a special place in Siegel's heart and life story. In fact, she wrote a novel about it. Angels Living in Trees: A Brief History on Roots tells the stories of the women who have lived around the tree over the centuries, from a Native American to a slave, to Martha Angel (the tree's namesake) to a modern day woman, Sophie. Siegel wrote the book in the shade of the Angel Oak's branches over three months in 2007.
"When you're standing at the base of the tree, you see the world through the eyes of a child again," says Siegel. "You understand how connected the world is."
So when Siegel heard the news about a development, she got on the computer, picked up the phone, and started asking questions. Her worry was that any alteration to the land in the tree's proximity could cause subtle changes in the environment, ultimately killing the ancient plant. Within days, she began a "Save the Angel Oak" petition that almost immediately garnered over 1,000 signatures.
Robert DeMoura, the developer behind what was then called Angel Oak Village, was understandably frustrated. The petition sparked a hailstorm of opposition, and text messages flew across the Lowcountry's phones, spreading the false rumor that the Angel Oak was in danger of being cut down. But after the hysteria passed, it seemed little could be done to stop a development already approved by Charleston City Council.
"Every city employee, every government employee, said, 'It's a done deal. There's nothing you can do,' and looked at me like, 'You poor, little, young, idealistic girl. You're not going to make a difference,'" says Siegel. "But here we are in February 2010, and to date, not a tree has been touched. That's solely because of the efforts of the community to protect the Angel Oak."
In the year-and-a-half since mounting her opposition, DeMoura has slightly altered his plans. Apartment buildings have been reduced from four stories to two and three, buildings have been pushed back (and replaced with a road) to expand the now 10-acre buffer around the tree, and 50,000 square feet of retail space has been eliminated. He's even reverted back to the plan's old name, the Sea Island Planned Unit Development, away from the controversy-stirring Angel Oak Village moniker. But although DeMoura has a team of arborists who claim the tree is protected under his plan, Siegel has other scientists and plenty of supporters who fear it might be at risk. And with even a chance of anything harming her tree, she's not backing down.
The Giving Tree
Growing up between the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Harbor Island, a narrow three-mile strip of land in the Bahamas, Siegel never acquired a grounded sense of home. She moved to South Carolina to attend the College of Charleston in 2000, about the same time her father moved to Seabrook Island. The Angel Oak became a regular stopping point for the young student. She'd sit upon its roots and reflect on the multitude of humans who must have rested in the same spot over the tree's 1,400 years.
"That tree taught me more about life and love than any book or parent or teacher combined," says Siegel. "Something about its presence inspired me to see myself honestly and fight my way through the making and remaking of myself. The Angel Oak stood up for me at a time when I lacked strength and courage. Now, I have found a way to do the same for her. Because while the Angel Oak does possess limitless strength, awe-inspiring beauty, infinite knowledge, and unmistakable power, she does not have a voice."
The 27-year-old has been compared to Julia Butterfly Hill, the activist who famously sat in a redwood tree in northern California for 738 days, protesting old-growth logging. Although Siegel hasn't chained herself to the Angel Oak's branches, she spends most of her free hours sifting through records, searching for any loophole that might slow or stop the development. She's turned up discrepancies in the history of the government's efforts to determine whether or not the adjacent wetlands are isolated, uncovered archaeological indications of a Gullah settlement on the site, and scoured the woods for signs of bald eagle nests and other protected species.
Most significantly, Siegel has galvanized an online battalion of supporters through her website, SaveTheAngelOak.org. Her petition has topped 8,000 signatures. Due to her efforts, public meetings regarding the development often fill to overflowing capacity.
"That tree is really the only place that's ever felt like home for me," says Siegel. "Now that I found it, I can't let anyone take it from me."
A Village Around a Tree
"We have a serious situation with these tree huggers that are hell bent on calling city councilmen and whoever else will listen," wrote AOV developer DeMoura in a Sept. 2008 e-mail, soon after Siegel began her petition.
He was right. After responding to community requests to eliminate plans for a big box retailer and to reduce impervious surface area, DeMoura's concept had passed most of the steps toward approval — minus a wetlands fill permit, an allowance to cut down "grand trees" (this has since been granted), and an official review of the design. The Coastal Conservation League, often the scourge of developers, was busy fighting I-526 and the Maybank Highway widening and didn't vocally oppose the plan. Angel Oak Village's promises of affordable workforce housing and added infrastructure at Johns Island's second busiest intersection kept internal dissidence to a minimum. For most citizens, the first news of the development came from the newspaper, and by this time, the City of Charleston and Mayor Joe Riley were calling it a done deal.
Siegel's now-boyfriend, Jeff Selert, brought her the story in July 2008. "She ran out of the room screaming, and I didn't see her for a month," he recalls. She immediately called the Conservation League and "screamed into the phone, 'Why aren't you doing anything?' "
John Hope, a member of the original planning commission for Wadmalaw Island and the former chair of the Charleston County Board of Zoning Appeals, read the same story with equal surprise.
"I said, 'How can it be approved when nobody's heard much about it?' That smelled of politics to me," says Hope. "I called Joe Riley's office, and Joe told me that it was a done deal and that I couldn't do anything about it. That was the wrong thing to tell me."
The Wadmalaw native thought it was odd that as recently as 2004, Mayor Riley had referred to the Angel Oak as the "poster child" of why the half-cent sales tax should be passed to help the city purchase green space, yet now they supported a development around it. He looked into the issue of wetlands jurisdiction on the property and felt that "political shenanigans" were involved.
Hope contacted Siegel at about the same time that Johns Island resident Lorna Hattler signed the petition. Hattler offered her help to Siegel, and together they founded SaveTheAngelOak.org. Along with Siegel's best friend, Emily Cavell, the trio spent long nights meticulously researching the history of the permit process for Angel Oak Village, gathering supporters, and constructing road signs to oppose the development.
"We would often have to remind each other to eat," says Siegel. "We were very obsessed."
Siegel, Hope, and Hattler dug up a confusing history of whether or not the Army Corps of Engineers considered the series of wetlands on the property to be federally jurisdictional that, if impacted, require mitigation and make development more costly and difficult. They sent a letter to the Corps pointing out the discrepancies. At press time, DHEC is still waiting to issue permits to DeMoura until they receive a final determination from the Corps on whether the wetlands are isolated or connected, with the potential to carry runoff to nearby Church Creek.
Complicating the situation is an agreement between DeMoura and the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corporation (SICHCC), from whom the developer bought the land. The company, which helps provide medical services to the poor, owed the IRS over $3 million. That debt was settled through the land sale, an arrangement that also included an endowment to SICHCC once Angel Oak Village started to generate income.
Hope believes that the debt was caused by an internal mishandling of funds at SICHCC, and alleges that U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, an advocate of the clinic since its inception, may have meddled in the wetlands determination in an effort to streamline approval of the project. Possibly lending clout to that notion is a letter from DeMoura's environmental attorney to the Army Corps, referencing the development's "direct benefit to the black community" and Clyburn's 'close involvement' in the project.
"The whole thing stinks of politics," says Hope. "Now this tree is going to suffer because of their mistakes."
Clyburn denies the charge, claiming he supports the company and efforts to provide affordable housing on Johns Island, and that he never intervened with the Army Corps in their jurisdictional process.
The representative did found the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, and Siegel's team and the CCL have suggested constructing a Gullah interpretive center on the land DeMoura has slated for phase two of the project. The League hired an appraiser to determine the parcel's value, and have offered to facilitate its purchase through private and Greenbelt funds to expand the park and create the center, with hopes that its creation could also help to fund SICHCC.
DeMoura doubts such a center could raise significant funds for SICHCC, and says that phase one is the current priority and that community involvement will dictate future plans for phase two. He contests that holding up a multi-million dollar development at a time of burgeoning unemployment rates is foolish.
"There are people hurting for jobs, and we're looking to put them to work for two or three years," says DeMoura. "We should be racing to the finish line."
CCL Executive Director Dana Beach suggests that Siegel may have actually saved DeMoura money through her opposition by stalling his investments in infrastructure just before the real estate collapse, allowing the developer to avoid the empty-condos situation many homebuilders are currently dealing with. The renowned environmental leader also suggests that DeMoura's approval of the phase two purchase will facilitate completion of phase one.
"He's got opponents who have offered to essentially pay fair market value to buy a portion of the land and add it to the park, thereby enhancing the amenity of the park for his development, removing public opposition, removing permitting problems, and injecting cash into his operation," says Beach.
Siegel says that if the phase two land is added to the park, buildings are pushed back further, and the density is scaled down in phase one so that the project doesn't affect the wetlands, she'll consider dropping her fight — if she's absolutely certain the Angel Oak will be safe.
DeMoura doesn't see the connection between brokering phase two for phase one approval. "I do not understand the concept of holding phase one hostage for phase two," he says. "They're basically saying, 'Okay, we really don't have any problems with phase one, and we're going to let it go as is, because you've done an amazing job architecturally, environmentally, and protecting the Angel Oak, with your buildings moved back, but if you don't want to deal with phase two, you're going to have problems on phase one.'"
The developer points out the environmental measures he's already taken, citing the project's rain water catchment systems, bioswale landscaping and rain gardens to control runoff, and an effort to gain LEED certification. "To say that the Angel Oak is not protected, with nearly 500 feet of space between the tree and the buildings, 10 acres of park and conservation land that equates to 10 football fields, you know, quite an amazing set of conservation goals have been achieved," says DeMoura, citing his project's endorsement by the director of the International Society of Arborists. (There is about 300 feet between the tree's canopy and the first impervious surface.)
He adds that the development will actually help the Angel Oak, per the beliefs of several arborists who recommend relocating the current parking area from inside the current 2.2 acre park to a spot set further from the tree on a site provided by the development.
Siegel agrees that the parking area should be moved, but the proposed conservation area surrounding the tree would mean establishing parking in yet another protected place. To her, the addition of any development on the perimeter of the Angel Oak's root system is of paramount concern. She raises the consideration that the tree is connected through fungal brides to other live oaks on its perimeter that would be cut down, affecting the roots' water and nutrient intake.
"In order for this tree to have grown like this, the ecosystem has to be almost completely perfect," says Siegel. "They want to clearcut this entire forest outside of the buffer, and these surrounding trees protect the Angel Oak from wind and harsh sunlight. That has helped it live all these years. It can either get too much or too little water, and that is what will kill it. Old trees like this sometimes take 25 years to die. No matter how many paid consultants say that it's going to be okay, if you alter that in any way, you're jeopardizing the life of a national monument."
Angel of the Oak
Amazingly, Siegel has maintained a full-time job throughout her struggle against the Angel Oak development. She quit her previous job in order to attend a Johns Island planning meeting, and at her current job at a court reporting agency, she saves up vacation days to spend at council meetings and in the offices of government agencies, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and poring through tedious files. She's a FOIA expert, oftentimes presenting the written law at offices where employees hesitate to provide her with information.
Her success in stalling the development is largely due to the zeal with which she pleads the Angel Oak's case. At one zoning meeting, a local business owner heard her speak and put her in touch with a local attorney, Mike Gruenloh, who has since donated his time and efforts to SaveTheAngelOak.org. The Department of Natural Resources arranged to fly her over the tree, searching for eagles' nests and protected species. Archaeologists have helped her to interpret the ruined foundation of a building that she and Hattler uncovered around the tree, mounting evidence of a 19th century freedman's village at the tree site, a potential deal breaker for development. Even at Kinko's, she's found supporters willing to cut her deals on presentation materials for use at public meetings.
Siegel has four different e-mail accounts associated with the Angel Oak, and oftentimes sends as many as 100 messages a day, harping at Army Corps or DHEC officials until her questions are answered.
"It really shows how one person can single-handedly have a huge impact on the future of an area, not only at this project site, but on that whole part of Johns Island," says CCL's Beach, who says in some regards that Siegel and DeMoura are quite similar. "She's a free-thinking, tree-hugging, eco-warrior, and he's a buttoned-up, corporate, hard-headed developer, but the one thing you can say about both of them is that they're relentless."
DeMoura credits Siegel with providing him "a lot of good information and a lot of good feedback as the plan has evolved," adding that, "we're going to have a better product because of that."
No matter what the end result of the struggle over the Sea Island Planned Unit Development, Siegel says she's found her calling as the "watchdog of Johns Island," an unofficial responsibility she hopes to maintain for the rest of her life. She says that despite the negativity that comes with opposing a development, she believes an outcome can be reached that benefits the community.
"I'd never done anything like this before. It was just coffee and pure love for this tree that made me go crazy and stay up all night figuring out how I was going to stop it," she says. "I went from a stagnant dreamer to a full-blown activist in a matter of days. Sometimes it takes something like this to wake you up."
Siegel's novel, Angels Living in Trees, is in the hands of publishers at Joggling Board Press. She's amended the story to include the struggle of Sophie, the modern-day autobiographical character, to save the tree. The story connects its characters through time, with the one permanent fixture being the Angel Oak. If it's published, the proceeds will be used to help preserve the grand oak.
"The story of the book is how the tree saves a girl, and how the girl saves the tree," says Siegel. "This all shows that anything is possible. If a tree can live for 1,400 years, that's pretty good proof that nothing's ever really a done deal."
Save the Tree
Developer Robert DeMoura says that nearly 500 feet of space separates the Angel Oak from the buildings in the proposed Sea Island Planned Unit Development, formerly the Angel Oak Village. DeMoura also notes that the proposed development will use bioswale landscaping and rain gardens to control runoff.