CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The Dark Ages were just beginning when Angel Oak sprouted from an acorn. But 15 centuries later, the tree is the focus of a modern-day debate over private ownership versus public benefit.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. wants to acquire the oak and make it the centerpiece of a city park, using the city's power of eminent domain to condemn property owned by S.E. ''Speedy'' Felkel.
But Felkel, a real estate developer who erected a fence around Angel Oak 12 years ago and charges visitors $1 to see it, says no amount of compensation the city offers will be enough.
''I consider it like the Felkel family Bible that came over here 200 years ago,'' he said, adding that he has promised the tree and the land to his children. ''There's no room for negotiation.''
The oak lies about 300 yards outside city limits on John's Island, a community south of Charleston. State law allows municipalities to acquire land outside their corporate limits and in adjoining counties if the acquisition is for public benefit and just compensation is given.
The oak is estimated to be 1,511 years old, and is believed to be the oldest living thing east of the Rockies, Felkel said. It got its name from the Angel family, which owned it from colonial times through the 1950s.
Riley has called it ''the quintessence of the Lowcountry's physical heritage.''
He said in his recent State of the City address that while the tree used to be available to the public, in recent years ''it became encircled with this hideously ugly fence and became a tourist attraction.'' The city plans to develop ''a quiet and gentle park,'' the mayor said.
Felkel said: ''Had we not fenced that tree 12 years ago, the tree would not be here today. If the mayor comes and pulls down the fence and gives it back to the public, the public will destroy it.''
Felkel's attorney, William Ackerman, said the issue of eminent domain concerns a gray area of the law.
Municipalities can condemn property if they want to put through a sewer line or a road, he noted. But does the law permit them to condemn a historic home simply because the city wants it for a museum?
''Can you condemn a painting by Rembrandt if you want to put it in an art gallery?'' he asked.
If the city decides to seek it through eminent domain, Felkel promised to fight it to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Sherry Martschink said she has asked for an opinion from the state attorney general on whether condemnation outside a jurisdiction for recreational purposes violates the spirit of the law.
Riley has agreed to allow residents to study the situation before proceeding further, said Burke Lee, the chairman of a committee that advises the city and county on growth plans for John's Island.
The study should be completed in about three months, he said, adding that the results probably will be presented at a public hearing.