FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Monday, August 2, 2021
Judge Tells TxDOT: Stop Bulldozing Protected Trees in Oak Hill
AUSTIN — A federal judge on Friday instructed the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to stop destroying protected trees as it begins reconstruction of the Oak Hill Y interchange at U.S. 290 and S.H. 71. Hours later, TxDOT announced that it had directed its contractor to stop removing all trees in the project until the judge’s next hearing on September 2.
TxDOT’s plans call for the existing ground-level intersection of 290 and 71 to be replaced by a much larger interchange with both sunken and elevated roadways. According to the project’s environmental impact statement, almost 200 trees that would otherwise be shielded by Austin’s tree protection ordinance could be removed during construction. The at-risk trees include 37 Legacy Trees (trunk diameter of 40 inches or more), 137 Heritage Trees (24 inches or more), and 114 Protected Trees (19 inches or more).
Several community groups and local residents have sued TxDOT, asking the agency to abandon its costly and unnecessary plans for the new interchange and to switch to a less destructive and cheaper design. The suit, which has been assigned to U.S. district court judge Robert Pitman, was filed by Save Barton Creek Association, Fix 290, Save Oak Hill, South Windmill Run Neighborhood Association, Alan Watts, and Mike and Crystal Bomer. The plaintiffs are represented by Bill Gammon of Gammon Law Office, with assistance from Kelly Davis of Save Our Springs Alliance.
During Judge Pitman’s hearing on Friday, TxDOT claimed that only trees with trunk diameters of 8 inches or less had been removed by its contractor so far. Gammon used photos taken by local residents to show the judge that the contractor had in fact bulldozed several much larger protected trees. (See attached photos below.)
In his ruling, Judge Pitman told TxDOT that it couldn’t remove any “potentially protectible” trees (trunk diameter of more than 8 inches) until he could rule on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The judge told TxDOT’s attorney that if he found any evidence that protected trees had been destroyed, he will question the contractor to find out exactly what instructions it received from the agency.
TxDOT announced late Friday that it was temporarily stopping the clearing of all trees and brush at the construction site. According to the agency’s statement:
“TxDOT has voluntarily and specifically instructed its contractor, Colorado River Constructors (CRC), to immediately stop work on tree and brush clearing along the entirety of the Project limits until the preliminary injunction hearing and hearing on the merits is conducted on September 2, 2021. Under TxDOT’s partial stop-work order, hand grubbing and clearing is also not allowed.”
According to Cynthia Wilcox, president of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods, “You can’t ever replace a native tree that is hundreds of years old. It takes eight human generations for a Heritage Tree to reach full maturity.”
Wilcox added, “The devastation to the Oak Hill community from this massive deforestation and destruction cannot be overstated. Community members have repeatedly asked TXDoT to scale back the footprint of this project to fix the congestion at the intersection and leave the community and Oak Hill’s namesake trees intact.”
Dr. Karon Rilling, a long-time Oak Hill activist, added, “TxDOT’s wasteful and obsolete elevated-and-excavated design will divide a cohesive community into three pieces with a hazardous and blight-inducing barrier between them.”