CHARLESTON, S.C. — It may not rank alongside the "Baby M" case, but a custody battle of sorts over a 1,500-year-old oak tree has produced reactions ranging from shock to indignation in this historic coastal city.
The debate began in January when Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. proclaimed that he would take whatever action necessary for the city to gain ownership of the "Angel Oak," touted as the oldest living thing east of the Rockies.
That's not sitting well with the current owner of the oak, S.E. (Speedy) Felkel, who is refusing to sell the tree and is promising a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court if Riley tries to take his property through the right of eminent domain.
"If he is allowed to take this oak, then he could also take any other article or thing that might have historical significance," Felkel said. "We have the old Felkel family Bible that was brought over here by the first Felkel 200 years ago. I certainly wouldn't want some mayor in some city to decide he wants the family Bible for his museum."
The gnarled, sprawling Angel Oak is located outside the Charleston city limits on John's Island, but South Carolina law allows municipalities to use the principle of eminent domain anywhere in their county or an adjacent county.
State Sen. Sherry Martschink, who represents the Charleston area, says lawmakers who drafted the measure did not intend for it to be used to seize a tree or pasture in an outlying area for recreational purposes, and she has introduced legislation to tighten the bill and block Riley's plan.
"This is a violation of the American dream and what this country is all about," Martschink said. "We pride ourselves on the fact that we, as Americans, can work as hard as we want to and earn money to purchase property as we want to.
"We thought we could do with that property as we wish, as long as we don't hurt other people, but this turns the American dream into a nightmare."
Felkel bought the tree and surrounding property 24 years ago and has taken steps over the last dozen years to preserve its health and protect it from vandals. He said his children can take better care of the tree than the city.
"Right now, this is a beautiful, valuable piece of property. There's only one like it this side of the Rockies," he said. "It's incumbent on us, the Felkel family, to see that this tree stays alive."
Felkel was forced to build a fence around the tree for its protection, and he charges $1 admission for viewing the natural wonder. Much of that money goes toward security and professional care for the oak.
Riley argues that the tree is in a rapidly developing area, and he said the creation of a public park is the best means of preserving it for future generations.
"What you could have with the Angel Oak, quite tragically--if steps are not taken and property around it acquired--is an asphalt-covered shopping mall running right up to the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi," he said. "That would be a tragedy."
Letters to the editors of local newspapers have been running heavily against the mayor, and more than 90% of those responding to a television poll on the issue opposed Riley's plan. The mayor, however, said his mail is running in favor of acquiring the tree.
William Hills, who has lived across the road from the Angel Oak for 62 years, said the condition of the tree has improved dramatically since Felkel purchased it in 1964. He said using eminent domain to create a park at the site could set a dangerous precedent, and he fears that his property could be next.
However, Riley said the city has no plans for wholesale annexation of historic buildings or property.