A heavy toll: Residents mourn loss of forest buffer | News

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A heavy toll: Residents mourn loss of forest buffer
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ID=22617675JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Walking through the compacted dirt across from her home, Mandarin resident Christine Conner reminisces about what used to be.

"You know what's sad? Is that my kids used to -- it was like our forest. That's where they played, you know?"

Conner bought her house 17 years ago, in large part because of the old-growth live oak right outside her door – the very kind removed in a vast interstate clear-cutting, as the Department of Transportation makes way for toll roads.

The removal of perhaps thousands of trees along I-295 to make room for the new limited-access toll road has caught plenty of drivers' attention in recent weeks. But Mandarin residents living the reality of a denuded landscape are demanding a fix. Together with scenic advocates and some elected officials, residents on Friday called for remediation.

"I want to call it more than just 'mitigation,'" said City Councilman Bill Bishop, currently a mayoral candidate. "This needs to be repaired. What happened here in this case is an example of what we never want to see happen in Jacksonville again."

Nobody knows for sure how many trees have been removed. Unlike city agencies, the DOT is not required to conduct a tree survey before cutting, or replace the value of the trees they remove. However, the agency's own documents show it considered the impacts to the natural environment negligible. "Actual impacts vary from None to Not Significant," project documents read.

"Shell shocked," is how Mandarin Community Club president Susie Scott describes her community. Standing next to a pile of tree debris – all that's left of the onetime forest off of Scott Mill Road -- she adds, "It's something I've never seen: Miles of roadway scraped back right to peoples fences."

She and others are demanding DOT replant the landscape with native tree species -- not just palm trees, as they often do -- and install an ivy-covered sound wall. A larger, possibly more complicated demand is to keep revenues generated by the toll road in the local community.

DOT spokesman Ron Tittle says the agency will try to accommodate the community, and make what changes time and the budget allow. However, he noted that because the project is underway, and a contractor on the job, changes at this stage aren't easy. He expressed hope that the agency can do a better job of getting citizens involved at the front end in the future -- before a project is finalized.

"Traditionally people don't go to [project planning meetings]. We invite them to go and talk with our planners, designers. But typically people don't pay attention to things until construction begins."

Something similar happened to Tittle himself. He also lives in Mandarin, and admits the tree removal has affected him. "It does get your attention when you ride through there. You say, wow! Didn't realize, you know? And nobody really realizes until the work is done."


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