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TxDOT halts tree-clearing in Oak Hill, pending court hearing

Monday, August 2, 2021 by Amy Smith

In light of a federal judge’s concerns over the state’s planned removal of nearly 200 trees to make way for a 12-lane road project through Oak Hill, the Texas Department of Transportation last week agreed to temporarily halt its tree-clearing work in southwest Austin.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman will make a final determination on the fate of the trees after hearing legal arguments on Sept. 2.

By the time the stop-work order was issued last Friday, the Texas Department of Transportation had already uprooted enough trees to stack, by its estimation, about a dozen large piles that were slated for mulching. TxDOT broke ground on the $674 million project in early July and anticipates completing it by 2025 or 2026.

Dubbed the Oak Hill Parkway Project, the road work – part of the agency’s Texas Clear Lanes initiative – will span six freeway lanes and six frontage road lanes, with part of the freeway elevated 30 feet above ground.

The project has been on the drawing board for at least a decade, but there has been little agreement between TxDOT and Oak Hill residents over how best to design a roadway that would have the least environmental impact while resolving the long-standing bottleneck at the Oak Hill “Y” at U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 75.

The plaintiffs in the legal challenge, led by the Save Barton Creek Association and a number of Oak Hill residents, have advocated for an alternative plan that would include an at-grade six-lane parkway with a local boulevard and bridged cross-streets to keep Oak Hill connected. Their plan would preserve large trees and create a Williamson Creek Greenbelt Park. Additionally, advocates say, the alternative plan would be cheaper and more environmentally sound.

Kelly Davis, an attorney with the Save Our Springs Alliance, and William Gammon, a lawyer in private practice, argued the plaintiffs’ case last week during a phone conference with Judge Pitman. The court denied the temporary restraining order they sought but instructed TxDOT to stop clearing protected and heritage trees as part of a separate application seeking a temporary injunction. That alone was cause for celebration although it is difficult to predict how the court will rule after the Sept. 2 hearing.

Prior to last week’s outcome, Oak Hill resident Cynthia Wilcox was expressing anguish over the trees already removed and the hundreds of others on the chopping block.

“That’s just the beginning of complete devastation of all of these huge oaks in Oak Hill,” Wilcox said of the first round of tree-clearing. “It’s just shocking that they are building this completely oversized project and removing all of these trees that are hundreds of years old. They don’t have any appreciation for a tree that has taken a hundred years to grow, or the fact that you can’t replace the functionality of that tree,” she said. “It’s going to take several hundred years to grow another one that large.”

Wilcox has lived in Oak Hill since the early 2000s and is president of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods. Like many residents, she has family living in the area. The road project, she said, will sever the community into three pieces, making it more difficult to move about to connect with family and friends.

“From the very beginning, that’s one of the things the community tried to communicate (to TxDOT): We would like a grade-level parkway so we can still get around in our community. So if you have an elevated freeway between you and a business, that poses a big barrier, not to mention if it’s between you and a school, or you and your mom. It makes it much more complicated to get around,” she said.

The court filing included affidavits from both residents and professionals who addressed the potential adverse affects of the construction project. One resident, Crystal Bomer, testified that TxDOT intends to remove three large oak trees on her family’s property, located less than a mile from the “Y” in Oak Hill.

No amount of money could replace the value of the trees, Bomer said in her affidavit. “They help our land from eroding; they provide shade and beauty. They provide privacy and noise reduction from the highway. These trees on my property and in the right-of-way provide oxygen, so our quality of life is being affected. These mature trees cannot be replaced in our lifetime.”

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This story has been changed since publication to clarify that TxDOT has stopped clearing trees voluntarily, in light of concerns expressed by the court during the Friday phone conference.

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