Port Allen council members pushing to fund beautification projects for community _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- A brightly-colored fire hydrant is one of the few things adorning the green space on Port Allen's Whitehead Blvd., for which a proposal has been made to install a winding sidewalk, decorative lighting underneath the oak trees and benches, to improve the usability and aesthetic appeal of the area.

PORT ALLEN — An attempt to protect the stately oak trees on Whitehead Boulevard that had sparked talk of racial and economic insensitivity was finally successful Wednesday when the City Council agreed to prohibit parking under the oaks.

The council agreed to post "No Parking" signs along Whitehead Boulevard — a street canopied by nearly 100-year-old oak trees in a subdivision aptly named The Oaks. 

Despite the aesthetic charm provided by the trees, the street oftentimes becomes a parking hot spot whenever the city or community groups host popular events downtown, especially when visitors flock to Port Allen during Fourth of July and Mardi Gras events. 

Oaks resident Doug Smith said the allowing people to park under the trees will slowly kill the oaks by creating deep ruts around tree roots and structural damage to the soil.

"It's not The Oaks neighborhood's burden to bear to provide parking," Smith said at Wednesday's council meeting. "When you plan an event, you have the obligation to provide adequate parking." 

Smith had thought his request would be a simple one; however, the council last month rejected his proposal, with discussion touching on racial and economic issues. 

That 3-2 rejection came from the council's three-member black majority who said Smith needed a showing of support from The Oaks community as whole to gain their support. Some of them also said it was unfair for the city to make such an effort to protect the aesthetic charm for one of Port Allen's primarily white subdivisions while ignoring the similar issues plaguing other parts of the city that are more economically challenged and are predominately black.

Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence, at that previous meeting, also claimed the trees had been used for lynching in the past, something she didn't know to be absolutely true. 

"This issue got way out of hand," Samantha Bell, one of many residents who showed up Wednesday to support Smith, said to the council. "It's heartbreaking some of the comments I've seen (online). To see this town get so divided over just trying to keep the city beautiful. Our city should not be divided like this." 

During the meeting Wednesday, Lawrence said her comments where "taken out of context," but she wouldn't elaborate further on her previous statements. 

She flipped her vote to a "yes" Wednesday, along with Councilman at-large Carey Williams, joining councilman Hugh "Hootie" Riviere and Garry Hubble. 

Councilman Brandon Brown, who originally voted "no" on the measure, chose to abstain, saying Smith hadn't collected enough signatures on the petition he presented to the council at the meeting.  

Smith's petition had nearly 60 signatures he was able to amass in just four days since the council's committee meetings last week, during which the issue again was raised. 

On Wednesday, Riviere, whose district encompasses part of The Oaks subdivision, said he saw an overwhelming show of support on social media for Smith's efforts as well. 

During the discussion, Mayor Richard Lee pointed out that posting the "No Parking" signs won't necessarily mean residents of The Oaks will no longer see vehicles parked along the median during major downtown events.  

"When you put a (no) parking sign up, all the police department is going to do is ticket the driver; they're not going to tow cars," the mayor said.    

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.