Thursday, August 09, 2007

Goodwill Stumping

While Bandera County slept, TxDOT crept

Iconic pecan trees felled during dark of night

Aug. 9, 2007

by Judith Pannebaker & David Arny
Bandera County Courier
Copyright 2007

According to a source speaking on the condition of anonymity, Texas Department of Transportation personnel, assisted by private contractors, including armed security guards, removed two increasingly controversial pecan trees during the night of Wednesday, August 1. Under the cloak of darkness, TxDOT personnel apparently asked law enforcement officers to divert motorists along Highway 16 North from FM 470 and FM 2828. Travel was restricted on these thoroughfares between 10 pm and 4 am.

The unnamed source overheard a TxDOT official explain the traffic diversions were necessary to ensure “less chance of trouble.”

However, in an email to the Courier, Laura Lopez, TxDOT public information officer, put a different spin on the closures, writing, “In due consideration of safety for the public and our workers, the roadway was closed last night at midnight … and reopened at 3 am. We apologize for any inconvenience to travelers during this period.”

It should be noted TxDOT routinely closes heavily traveled roads in the San Antonio metropolitan area during repairs and construction projects to forestall public safety hazards.

The unnamed source described the workforce scurrying around the pecan grove as “a small army of chainsaw-wielding workers and clipboard-carrying technocrats.” Equipment at the site was said to include an excavator, a steel container with a 40 cubic-yard capacity and a “Barko.”

The Barko (Hydraulic Forestry Loader), which has the capacity to bristle with grapples, shears and tree-delimbers, was purportedly used to extract the roots of the two downed trees.
According to the website, the company’s mantra is “Leave no stump behind.” “Also included on the website is the phrase “… (makes) the trees cringe with our line of dependable, profitable and productive feller buncher models.”

In addition, it was also alleged the crew who felled the trees had been called away from a project in Seguin, a 170-mile roundtrip, to work their graveyard shift in Bandera. The crew was purportedly originally out of Yoakum.

In her email, Lopez characterized TxDOT’s approach to the trees’ removal as “innovative and carefully designed,” adding, “Engineers were able to minimize the tree removal.” After indicating original plans had called for removal of five or more trees, she asserted, “TxDOT engineers worked to preserve the integrity of the pecan tree grove and yet provide needed measures of safety to the public.” TxDOT personnel plan to plant 10 pecan trees to mitigate the loss of the pair of trees.

One of the trees, Lopez wrote, was suffering from fatal fungal rot and the other was directly adjacent to “high speed” travel lanes. The posted speed limit on that section of the two-lane scenic highway that meanders by the Medina River is 65 mph.

However, Medina resident Karen Schenck, who attended many court hearings challenging TxDOT decisions, disparaged the necessity of driving quickly through the historic grove. “The area is a natural passage for wildlife,” she said. “It makes absolutely no sense to allow traffic to go through that area at a high rate of speed.”

Schenck added, “It breaks my heart that they would cut those old-grove trees. They can never be replaced.”

The native pecan grove, which forms a canopy over Highway 16, has been the subject of protracted litigation between TxDOT and Bandera County citizens.

In a recent decision, US District Judge Royal Ferguson of the United States Western District Court of Texas determined that TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration “should not be enjoined from completing a Highway 16 road-widening project,” ruling the trees’ removal did not outweigh the “significant expense incurred by the state” from further delaying the project. In addition, he ruled the public has an interest in completion of the safety project.
Ferguson also determined it was “highly unlikely” that area landowners would prevail in a lawsuit filed under the National Environmental Policy Act, which claimed removal of two pecan trees would cause irreparable environmental harm.

After learning about Ferguson’s decision, John Payne, attorney for plaintiff Medina resident Jacquelynn R. Kyle, indicated he planned to file an appeal with the US Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans.

“The plaintiffs in this case do not believe the ruling by the federal district court is correct,” Payne wrote in an email. “They believe the people of this county have a right to be heard, and that the value of the native pecan grove outweighs any value TxDOT has to offer.”

After learning about the late night fate of the two iconic trees, Payne added, “It is certainly a shame that our government and governmental agencies can see fit to do their work in secret and in the dead of the night, with armed guards. Most of the people who operate that way are doing something dishonest that they don’t want the rest of the world to see.

“That does not sound much like the ‘America’ I think we all hold dear. When our government and governmental agencies cease to be accountable to the people, that’s the start of something other than democracy and the American way of life for which such a high price has been paid over the years.”

Payne decried the fact an state agency such as TxDOT could “come through our homes and do whatever they please, as well as being answerable to no one but themselves. He then reiterated, “My clients plan to continue their efforts to be heard in the federal district court in San Antonio, as well as in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.”

When asked for a comment on the events during the night of August 1, Todd Sandidge, local TxDOT employee, offered no explanation, saying instead, “All questions are to be answered by the TxDOT public information officer in San Antonio or Mike Coward, Kerrville area engineer.” The Courier’s calls to Coward were not returned.

In a prepared statement, however, Coward offered, “We are ready to complete the project. The delay from the legal challenges has impacted the contractor and resulted in an increased project cost that we will need to negotiate, but we are hoping to be finished by Christmas.”
After learning about TxDOT’s late night operation, Wesley Zirkel, salesman at Medina’s Ace Hardware Store, commented, “I knew they were going to pull a Paul Bunyon on us.”

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