JOHNS ISLAND — A lot of effort went into saving the 35 acres surrounding the Angel Oak from development. Now, nearly a decade later, the Lowcountry Land Trust is ready to collect community input on what to do with the property.
This week begins a schedule of opportunities for people to share how they’d like to see the wooded space around the iconic oak used. But the ultimate goal remains: that the planned Angel Oak Preserve be passive, publicly accessible green space complemented with trails, boardwalks and interpretive notes, and that the tree itself not be harmed.
The land trust will share a presentation on the tree’s history and the future preserve at 7 p.m. June 9, and again at 6:30 p.m. June 15, at the Johns Island Library. Public comments will be collected during the presentations.
This special tree holds deeply rooted history in the Lowcountry. It is named after the Angel family that once owned the land where it stands. The tree is estimated to be at least 300 years old, making it quite possibly one of the oldest trees of its kind east of the Mississippi River.
It’s also a behemoth. City surveys estimate the tree to be 65 feet tall with a circumference of 25.5 feet, shading an area of 17,000 square feet beneath the extensive canopy.
Based on the city’s most recent inspection, “the health of the Angel Oak could not be better,” said David Grant, Charleston’s park and tree administrator.
The area surrounding the Angel Oak is so special that community members rallied together to ensure not much changed there. In 2008, Charleston City Council approved plans for a densely built collection of shops, offices and multifamily homes near the Angel Oak Park at Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road.
But there were concerns about the impact this development would have on the tree.
So after collecting more than 12,000 donations, plus Charleston County Greenbelt and S.C. Conservation Bank funds, the Lowcountry Land Trust was able to buy the property for $7 million to save it from development. This is the space that will become Angel Oak Preserve.
“Putting this heavy development there would have impacted the root system, the hydrologic flows, the soils, everything that’s needed to be preserved for the health of this tree,” said Jason Crowley, Coastal Conservation League’s communities and transportation senior program director.
The 35 acres owned by the land trust is comprised of every soil necessary for an ancient live oak to thrive, Crowley said.
The Angel Oak’s significance as a community landmark goes back generations. Crowley said the late South Carolina educator-activist Septima Clark mentioned in interviews how she would often take breaks from teaching and sit underneath the tree, and even sometimes gather there with her students.
“Even though this was technically private property, it harkens back to the era of Johns Island and the Sea Islands themselves as this place where property boundaries were fluid in the sense of people could walk across private property in order to access things like waterways and a shady tree like this,” Crowley said.
The tree’s interests have become a cultural issue on Johns Island in recent years as some places that were once accessible to Gullah-Geechee residents for fishing, crabbing and launching boats are now being privatized.
Ashley Demosthenes, CEO and president of the Lowcountry Land Trust, said many locals believe the land around the tree is sacred and have expressed desires to explore the woods there.
“They want it to be a place for education for residents, visitors and the local schools,” Demosthenes said. “So that’s a huge opportunity that we see, that education component with students.”
Overall they want it to be a place open for walking, observing nature and enjoying picnics with family, Demosthenes said.
While the Angel Oak is obviously the main attraction in that part of Johns Island, the Lowcountry Land Trust wants to utilize its 35 acres to relieve some of the pressure on the tree.
So, essentially, the preserve will help distribute visitors across the entire property — not just at the 9-acre Angel Oak Park — using trails, boardwalks and interpretation woven throughout to explain the ecology and cultural significance of the area.
Since the city-owned park is a direct neighbor to the preserve, it makes sense for the two groups to partner in developing a vision and plan for the area, said Jason Kronsberg, director of parks for the city of Charleston.
He sits on the preserve’s steering committee with Crowley and people from several other groups, including The Avery Center, The Progressive Club and the Charleston Parks Conservancy.
Members of the community can share their desires for the preserve through an online survey at bit.ly/3xrCh2P. The land trust will have a table at the Sea Island Farmers Market from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. June 11 and June 25. There also will be an information table set up from 2 to 4 p.m. each Friday at Angel Oak Park.
Nelson Byrd Woltz Architects will lead the comprehensive planning process. The goal is to have a design completed in early 2023.