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Jonesboro leaders vow fight for crepe myrtles

Photo by Curt Yeomans
Many of the 183 crepe myrtle trees that the city of Jonesboro planted along the Norfolk Southern rail line are in danger of being cut down, as part of the railroad company's plan to improve safety along its rail lines.

Photo by Curt Yeomans Many of the 183 crepe myrtle trees that the city of Jonesboro planted along the Norfolk Southern rail line are in danger of being cut down, as part of the railroad company's plan to improve safety along its rail lines.

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

One might call it the second battle of Jonesboro, or the Great Crepe Myrtle War of 2011.

Jonesboro city leaders are vowing to fight a plan, by railroad operator Norfolk Southern, to remove more than half of the 183 crepe myrtle trees that grow along the company's rail line in Jonesboro -- next month.

Norfolk Southern officials have said they will remove many of the trees, which are located along the city's Main Street, as part of an effort to improve safety along the company's rail lines.

It has been more than 145 years since the city was the site of the Civil War's Battle of Jonesborough, but the city's mayor and members of the city council are up in arms over the planned removal of what they see as an integral part of Jonesboro's downtown area. Mayor Luther Maddox said he plans to talk with city attorney Steve Fincher about possible legal action to keep the trees from being cut down.

"I'm sure the railroad is going to do what they want to do, but they won't do it without us kicking and screaming about it," Maddox said. "I don't see where we can win this one, but I'm going to try."

The rail road company's plan to remove the crepe myrtle trees has ruffled feathers, not just with city leaders, but also some residents, because they see the trees as an important part of the aesthetics of Jonesboro's downtown. Maddox said the city planned some aspects of its ongoing Streetscape project, whose first phase of work was just completed, to compliment the crepe myrtles.

In December, when winter has caused the leaves to fall off of the trees, the city hangs Christmas lights on them as part of its annual holiday display. "They just give it [downtown Jonesboro] a nice, small hometown feel," Maddox said. "And, especially during the holiday season when we can light 'em up and all. It just makes Jonesboro look like 'coming home.'"

Joe Nettleton, Jonesboro's public works director, said residents planted the trees along the rail road 18 years ago, under an agreement between city leaders at the time and Norfolk Southern officials.

Joel E. Harrell, III, Norfolk Southern's resident vice president for government relations, wrote in a May 26 letter, to Maddox and Nettleton, that the company has had a program for "several years" which involves the company removing vegetation growing within 25 feet of either side of the center of the rail line, and 300 feet along the rail line, on either side of a railroad crossing.

The vegetation can also not be any taller than 30 inches, he told city officials in the letter. "This will entail the removal of a good portion of the exiting [crepe] myrtles that the City of Jonesboro planted along our right of way, as well as some of the shrubs planted between Mill Street, and College Street," Harrell wrote. "If you desire to move and/or transplant any of the existing plants and/or shrubs, this must be accomplished prior to our contractor's work commencing around July 1, 2011.

"I realize this is short notice," Harrell added, "But, this is an ongoing program with 1,800 miles of track in Georgia. It has taken us several years to perform the necessary work throughout the state, and we are now in a position to address your area."

Norfolk Southern Spokesperson Susan Terpay said, in a written statement issued on Tuesday, that the removal of the crepe myrtles in Jonesboro is part of a nationwide effort to make motorists safer around the company's rail lines. She said the company will do similar work in Morrow, along the same rail line, later this summer.

"This is part of an ongoing safety and maintenance project, taking place across all 20,000 miles of railroad that Norfolk Southern operates in 22 states, to ensure that when motorists approach a grade crossing, where roadways and railroad tracks intersect, that they have adequate clearance in both directions to see if a train is approaching," Terpay wrote.

Nettleton said some of the crepe myrtles will remain after Norfolk Southern moves forward with its plans, but he added the number will go from 183 trees along Main Street, to only 55. A few trees will remain around the Road to Tara Museum, at the old Jonesboro Train Depot, but the rest of the surviving trees, 34 of them to be exact, will be located between Spring Street and North Avenue.

"It's going to be a huge change to the downtown area," Nettleton said.

But, while some of the crepe myrtles will stick around, city council members say "some" will not be enough.

Councilman Clarence Mann said he was not aware of any incidents in which the trees had created a visibility problem that led to an accident. "I just think we need to do what we can to preserve this, even if we have to go to our state legislators," he said. "Whatever we have to [do], I don't think we need to just roll over and take this. We need to fight for it."

Fellow Councilmember Pat Sebo said she could understand the railroad company's point -- if the trees had been allowed to grow uncontrolled -- but she argued that the city's public works crews have been doing a good job of making sure the trees are trimmed.

"If we didn't maintain the trees, it would be different," she said. "But, Joe [Nettleton] and his guys take such great care of them, and maintaining the trees. They are so beautiful, not only when they are blooming, but in the wintertime, when they are decorated for Christmas. It would definitely be a shame to lose them."

Sebo also said she had wanted to start up a "Crepe Myrtle Festival," along the lines of McDonough's annual Geranium Festival, to celebrate the trees' extensive presence in the city. "But, I guess that won't be happening now."