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The Buzz 12/26/13

Tree Trauma Many regular travelers of Scenic Highway experienced a shock in early December that was the result of the removal of swaths of trees at the highway’s intersection with Interstate 10. The trees were cleared as part of a three-year long Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) project that will widen the stretch of I-10 between Davis Highway and Scenic Highway from four to six lanes.

The intersection is located in Escambia County’s District 4 that Commissioner Grover Robinson represents. Robinson said he had been aware of the project itself for several years. FDOT’s plans to widen I-10 and the fact that the project required only limited right-of-way takings that would not displace homeowners in the vicinity was the extent of his knowledge of the project, he told the IN.

“What I was not aware of, and what I had not thought of, is what was going to happen with the water from the new road and that they would have to create ponds — I did not know that,” he said.

While traveling to Tallahassee on Friday, Dec. 5, Robinson said he was as surprised to see the cleared landscape as anyone. “My initial reaction was ‘God, this is terrible.’ My first thought was how can Escambia County help?”

Robinson contacted staff at Escambia County, FDOT and the project’s design engineer. In those discussions, he stated he quickly learned that the construction of two retention ponds at the center of new on/off ramps to the interstate, which were designed with broader environmental impacts from storm water runoff in mind, was what necessitated the tree removal.

“I had long discussions with the project engineers and they assured me that the overall ecological benefit that is going to come from those retention ponds would be significant,” said Robinson of the runoff from the ramps and roadway that will be diverted into the ponds rather than flowing directly into Escambia Bay. “I hate that it happened at the loss of the trees, but again, sometimes you can’t control these things.”

Public announcements for each of two public meetings on April 19, 2011 and Jan. 18, 2012 mention the construction of storm water ponds involved in the project, but like many members of the public, county officials were either unaware of the specific plans altogether or simply didn’t realize the trees would come down as part of them.

“I will say that I am somewhat guilty,” Robinson conceded. “I did not actively pursue them to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ I knew the plan was happening, but I had no idea that they were going to be cutting down those kinds of trees.”

While the county has a tree ordinance in place, the state is not required to consider such local regulations. “It’s their project, it’s their work. We don’t really get much say in it,” Robinson said.

“I think perhaps one of the problems is we should have been more cognizant in working with them at Scenic Highway,” Robinson added, mentioning the local protections for the Scenic Highway corridor that a special county overlay zone requires.

Robinson and others at the county are now working with the state in an effort to make the best of a bad situation. FDOT District 3 Secretary, Tommy Barfield, has assured that the agency is “committed to a significant landscaping improvement at that intersection,” in the wake of the uproar according to Robinson, who is interested in the county augmenting the state’s plans to whatever extent possible.

“We had great, mature trees there. I would like us to find ways to get a mature tree as possible to replant,” Robinson stated. “I’m going to have to get support from other commissioners to be able to use that tree fund. I certainly plan to bring that forward.”