JEANERETTE — Almost 500 people have signed an online petition to stop the state from unearthing 13 live oaks deemed hazardous along a portion of La. 182’s roadside.
The trees’ fates rely on Department of Transportation and Development plans to rehabilitate a 4.73-mile stretch of the highway, which extends south from the Iberia Parish line to La. 670 in St. Mary Parish.
All 13 oaks are growing in the way of an “enhanced safety measure” that requires a 10-foot “clear zone” between the road and any obstacle, said Deidra Druilhet, DOTD spokeswoman.
Cutting the trees down, she said, is the least expensive way to address the potential safety hazard they pose for motorists.
“We want to make sure that anyone who is traveling down that corridor will do so in a safe manner, free of any type of hazard or any fixed object,” Druilhet said. “That’s the main thing we want the public to understand.”
Some worry that cutting down the trees will destroy the road’s appeal as a scenic highway.
“If these roads start looking like Highway 90 with clear cuts on each side, there’s no reason for it to even be a scenic byway,” said Donovan Garcia, a Jeanerette native and Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge volunteer who’s been rallying residents in support of the trees’ conservation.
“We need to try to preserve them,” Garcia said. “Otherwise, it may be the next little town down the road that’s going to lose their trees because of state funding issues.”
The route involved hasn’t been repaved since 1985. Lumped patches of black and gray asphalt bulge from the scenic byway, which carries about 1.6 million vehicles each year. Nine percent of the traffic is farm trucks, some 151,000 annually. Most haul loads to and from the St. Mary Parish Sugar Cooperative located three miles south of the Iberia Parish line.
DOTD recorded 37 crashes on the stretch of road from 2010-2012, “a high category” of which involved drivers veering off the road, Druilhet said.
The department didn’t acquire data on how many of those crashes involved tree impacts, but six of them — two each year — were alcohol-related, one of them fatal, Druilhet said. Other crashes happened in bad weather or at night.
At about $40,000, removing the trees proved the lowest cost solution to help decrease the possibility of future crashes, Druilhet said. She said placing barriers in front of the trees would defeat the purpose of the proposed 10-foot buffer zone and would cost money to maintain.
It’s unclear at this point how much the roadway rehabilitation project will cost in total, as it won’t go out for bid until February. The Federal Highway Administration is funding 80 percent of the project, but the state is responsible for handling safety issues brought up in the road safety report, Druilhet said.
All 13 trees targeted for removal are wrapped in red ribbon, including a majestic live oak at the front of Lisa Estes’ property. Ten of them that are younger and thinner are across the street from her land, and two older, ribbon-wrapped oaks are growing a couple of miles south of her property on La. 182.
Estes started the petition after hearing the state’s plans from neighbors Nov. 18, a day after DOTD met with some of the eight property owners affected by the proposed construction.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have stopped to take pictures with my tree,” Estes said. “Some of them ask to take home a sample of moss.”
Its trunk is scarred from an old car crash.
For state engineers to consider a live oak “significant” — or a red oak, white oak, magnolia or cypress, for that matter — it must be in good health, greater than 18 inches in diameter or have a historic or “legendary stature with the community,” according to DOTD’s Engineering Directives and Standards Manual. In those cases, planners can “accommodate these trees where practical.”
DOTD in 2011 spent $300,000 to relocate a 150-year-old Iberia Parish oak called “Mr. Al” after the community protested its removal, which was to make way for a new service road on U.S. 90.
None of the 13 trees on La. 182 are draped in legend or recorded history, but anyone can sponsor them with the Live Oak Society, “even if they’re on public property,” Chairwoman Coleen Perilloux Landry said.
Landry, with the help of then-Gov. Mike Foster in 2003, helped spare a 600-year-old, Jefferson Parish oak called “Old Dickory.” In that case, a state highway project, federal drainage project and subdivision were redesigned to accommodate the tree.
Landry said she’s already gotten involved with the residents rallying to save the Jeanerette oak.
“A solution is usually found,” Landry said.
The Jeanerette Chamber of Commerce urged a compromise in an emailed statement Nov. 21.
“While we wish to ensure the safety of our roadways for travelers, we would also wish to maintain the beautiful scenic route that Highway 182 provides to locals and tourists as well,” Chamber CEO Phaedra Perkins wrote.
Este’s Web petition had 460 signatures Sunday evening. She said she has plans to stand at the iconic Yellow Bowl restaurant — it’s also located within the 4.73-mile stretch of La. 182 — and rally signatures in support of saving the trees.
“If they cut these down, there’s nothing,” Estes said. “It’s gonna be bare. It’s gonna be ugly. I would just hate to see them go.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook.