By Tony Tucci
A 30-inch diameter live oak tree will be chopped down to make room for the widening of Frate Barker Road in Southwest Travis County — leaving neighbors divided on the project.
Frate Barker is a 1.3-mile two-lane road between Brodie Lane and Manchaca Road. The plan is to widen it to five lanes, including a center turn lane, and add bike lanes and sidewalks. All of this would require a right-of-way 120 feet wide. The project will cost $9 million, and work is expected to begin at the end of this year.
While acknowledging that one large oak will have to be cut, the environmental assessment prepared by Travis County found the project would have “no significant social, economic and environmental effects.”
Thirty people gave verbal and written comments at a public hearing, and 22 of them favored the route that would require cutting the tree. However, Tina Gray said she and her neighbors were not informed of the public hearing, and want to save the tree.
“So far everyone I’ve talked to is opposed to the project,” said Gray, a resident of Rancho Alto, one of four neighborhoods that access onto Frate Barker. “Some of us weren’t notified of the public hearing,” she said. “There’s absolutely no way I would have ignored a notice.”
Besides Rancho Alto, the neighborhoods of Shady Hollow, Olympic Heights and Gabardine use the road. Gray and some of her neighbors held a “pow-wow” at the tree Wednesday, and circulated fliers announcing a rally to be held at the tree this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
Chiddi N’Jie, senior engineer with Travis County, said notices were sent to all four neighborhood associations asking them to communicate with their members. In addition, he said the public hearing was advertised in the American-Statesman, several community newspapers, television stations and the county’s public access television station.
“We also sent notices to area businesses, schools, fire stations and all public officials,” he said.
N’Jie said he offered to speak at neighborhood association meetings, but Shady Hollow was the only one to accept. He presented facts about the project at a meeting in the community center in March 2011.
“We tried to reach everybody, but we couldn’t send them all a notice,” he said.
N’Jie said it would cost about $100,000 to move the tree, and there is little chance it would survive. Instead, he said the county will plant several trees nearby that in total will be comparable to the one tree being cut.
The widening of Frate Barker is a safety issue, N’Jie said. There is one daycare school on the road, and two elementary schools and a middle school nearby.
N’Jie said many of the protesters don’t want the project at all, but that’s not an option. “It’s just not safe any more. They have a right to protest, and we’ll listen to them. And when they’re ready to sit down and talk, we’ll meet with them.”
Gray said she doesn’t believe the road is unsafe. “In six years there have been only 28 fender-benders and no fatalities.”
Gerald Daugherty, who was county commissioner in Precinct 3 when planning for the project began, said he is no longer sure that five lanes are necessary. He said at the time there was talk of extending Frate Barker west to MoPac Boulevard, but the city bought some watershed protection land and blocked the path.
“I’d like to meet with a bunch of folks and ask why we need that big of a roadway. Maybe you could build two lanes with shoulders and a middle turn lane — and you might not have to take the tree,” Daugherty said.
The present commissioner, Karen Huber, said she had a representative at the public hearing, and the majority of people wanted the road.
“I love trees, and I don’t want to see any tree coming down,” she said. “When I heard about that tree on FM 1826 being cut, I called TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) and told them I don’t want to have this happen at the ‘Y’ in Oak Hill. I told them I want to be notified whenever they let a contract to cut trees in my precinct.”
On Frate Barker, however, it might be a choice between the tree and the safety of residents. “There’s a lot of school traffic,” she said.
Huber said her office was presented with petitions with 191 names, but when her staff checked the zip codes, only 40 of the signers were from the Frate Barker area. “Forty-nine of them were from outside of Texas, and two of them were from outside the U.S.,” she said.
Huber and Daugherty are running against each other for the county commission seat.
Tracey Huguley, one of the residents who is organizing the neighborhood campaign, said the petitions were circulated nationally through a web site called change.org. “We were looking for environmentalists who would support our cause,” she said. She added that the petitions still are being circulated.
Huguley said she is researching National Environmental Protection rules to see if the county acted properly when it notified residents of the public hearing through neighborhood associations instead of by direct mail. She said if the notification was faulty the public hearing process might have to be done over.
Michael Embesi, Austin’s city arborist, said even if the tree is spared it is doubtful it could survive construction unless some special measures are taken. A tree with a 30-inch diameter would require a 30-foot clearance, and that’s not possible with the Frate Barker right of way.
Embesi said the tree is outside the city limits and therefore is not subject to Austin’s Tree Preservation Ordinance, which would recognize it as protected and require road workers to meet special qualifications before it could be removed.
“Obviously the farther the construction work is from the trunk the better,” he said. “We’re going to face the same situation in Oak Hill, only the trees are bigger and the road is wider,” he said. The basic rule is that a tree needs a foot for every inch in diameter, and any work within that space will diminish its chances of survival.
Embesi said residents need to take an early and active role in the planning stages so the trees are protected. He said the important thing is to make sure construction does not disturb the root system, which extends beyond the tree’s branches.
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