Group rallies to save Acadiana live oaks from DOTD’s chainsaws _lowres

Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- This line of oak trees designated with a red ribbon along La. 182 in Jeanerette was slated to be removed to make room for a buffer zone, but citizens have waged a successful campaign to save them.

A battle to save 13 live oak trees growing along La. 182 from the state transportation department’s chain saws has ended in victory for residents who waged the fight.

The state Department of Transportation and Development on Tuesday announced modified plans for a 4.73-mile repaving project to accommodate the trees, which were set for unearthing as soon as next year.

“It would be a shame to lose those trees to the ax,” said state Sen. Bret Allain, who had been working with Gov. Bobby Jindal and DOTD officials in recent weeks to reach a compromise.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Allain said of the plan to uproot the trees. “But I credit the governor for listening to our concerns and helping keep St. Mary Parish beautiful.”

At issue was a proposal to create a 10-foot “clear zone” between the road and any obstacle, trees included, along a portion of the route extending from the Iberia Parish line in Jeanerette to La. 670 in St. Mary Parish.

Five of the once-threatened oaks line property owned by O.J. Broussard, who said he requested help from Allain and state Rep. Sam Jones after a meeting with DOTD officials about the project.

“Initially, DOTD said the trees are diseased, and they’re not,” Broussard said. “Eleven were at least 13, 14 feet off the highway.”

Jones was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, but Allain said he got confirmation Monday that the trees would be preserved.

Rather than remove the trees, DOTD has decided to trim low-hanging branches “to allow for safe passage of sugar cane trucks and farm equipment,” DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas wrote Tuesday in a news release.

About 151,000 farm trucks travel the route each year, according to DOTD figures.

Enhanced signage and rumble strips — a roadside safety feature that causes vibrations and rumbling when a car veers too close to the edge — also will be installed to improve safety, LeBas wrote.

DOTD recorded 37 crashes on the stretch of road from 2010-12, “a high category” of which involved drivers veering off the road, spokeswoman Deidra Druilhet said last week. The department didn’t acquire data on how many of those crashes involved tree impacts.

About 1.6 million vehicles annually travel the route, which hasn’t been repaved since 1985, according to DOTD figures.

Although area residents who rallied on the trees’ behalf are celebrating the news, concerns remain that other trees throughout the state could be affected by future roadway projects.

“These are 13 trees,” said Donovan Garcia, a Jeanerette native who had been blitzing legislators and the media since he first heard of the state’s plans two weeks ago. “There’s a lot more out there that’s in danger.”

Last-minute efforts to save other oaks have been costly in the past, with the state spending $300,000 in 2011 to relocate an Iberia Parish oak called “Mr. Al.” In another case, a federal road and drainage project was completely redesigned in 2003 to save a 600-year-old oak called “Old Dickory.”

Allain said he’d like to see more tools available for DOTD to use to address these kinds of issues beforehand.

“Some of the smaller trees (on La. 182) probably could have been moved back, keeping the trees alive and public safety in mind, but DOTD doesn’t feel it has the right to do that,” Allain said. “Maybe a couple more common-sense approaches, a couple of options when tackling these types of issues, would be a win-win, not only for safety but for the beautification of the parish.”

Lisa Estes, who lives across the street from O.J. Broussard and boasts a majestic oak at the front of her 10-acre plot, had collected more than 700 digital signatures by Tuesday in an online petition to save the oaks. The one on her property is almost 15 feet around.

“Get out!” she exclaimed, laughing, when she heard the trees had been saved. “That’s good news!”

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook