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County ponders how to deal with heritage tree in path of road extension

Thursday, October 31, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Travis County Commissioners will face a tough decision next week as they decide the fate of a 100-year-old oak tree that is in the way of an extension of Frate Barker Road in South Austin.


The item came up on the court’s agenda on Tuesday, but after examining a complex array of solutions, Commissioners opted to put off a decision until Nov. 5. 


The 30-inch Heritage Live Oak tree, which sits in the right-of-way for a $9 million, five-lane  extension of Frate Barker between Brodie Lane and Manchaca Road, must either be removed, or dug up and transplanted, or the roadway must be re-routed around the tree.


The county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department said it would normally have just taken the tree down and planted the equivalent of 30 diameter inches of new trees somewhere else as mitigation. But a group of residents from the neighborhood next to the road extension protested the potential loss of the tree, so TNR included the cost of transplanting the tree and moving it about 500 feet to a donated plot of land in its contract for the road.


County Executive Steve Manilla told Commissioners that the cost of preserving the tree was $245,000, which was folded into the overall contract bid for the roadway. He said there were four bids to save the tree, ranging from $120,000 to the $245,000, but since those bids were included in the overall cost of the road project, the $245,000 tree cost actually came with the lowest overall bid.


“Why can’t we pull out the tree removal and treat is as a separate project?” asked County Judge Sam Biscoe, adding that $245,000 seemed like a lot of money to move a tree. “It’s hard to spend that much money on a tree when you have a bid that’s for half of that amount.”


Manilla said it might not be possible to break out a part of a bid in that fashion and not have to re-bid the entire project. That could take minimum of 30 days to accomplish, he said, and the project has already been in the planning stages for about five years.


He added that since the Texas Department of Transportation is paying for about 80 percent of the road project, the agency said the cost to move the tree might be paid for by the state. That would cut the cost to Travis County down to about $49,000. But Manilla said TxDOT officials would not say whether they would pay for the tree until the county made a decision and requested that they pay for it. By contrast, he said, Travis County’s cost for removing the tree and mitigating would only be $20,000.


“I think we need to know that,” said Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “That is a big deal. If the Court has to pick up $50,000 as opposed to $250,000, and they are paying 80 percent . . .  that makes this deal a lot easier.”


A group of about a dozen people, mostly from a nearby neighborhood, spoke in favor of preserving the tree. Local advocates have named the tree “Cami” after two local girls who died of cancer.  Many from the group spoke passionately about preserving the tree and some even encouraged commissioners to re-route the road project around the tree, keeping it where it is. (Commissioners seemed to not be interested in that option.)


Tracy Huguey, who lives in the Rancho Alto neighborhood, spearheaded the effort to save the tree.


“We decided that we would not fight the expansion of the road if we could get something. And that something is the tree,” she said. “We’ve named that tree, we talk to that tree, we sit under that tree, and we love that tree. That tree is very important to us.”


Daugherty said it seemed to him that the process was flawed.


“This is very dangerous, in my opinion, for there to be a tree versus a road,” he said. “It does distress me a bit to think that the road has been held hostage over a tree. I don’t really want to see that, because that’s a fight that none of us want. No one wants to cut a tree down, but the problem we have in this community in regards to mobility and transportation is severe and we can’t seem to move forward.”


Biscoe instructed staff to further examine the option of re-bidding the tree project, and return to Court with more options next week.

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