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Jonesboro to seek 'relief' for crepe myrtles

The City of Jonesboro may have found a way to keep all of its crepe myrtle trees along the Norfolk Southern rail line that runs through the heart of the city, according to the town's mayor.

Mayor Luther Maddox, and Councilmember Pat Sebo, said they met, Monday, with representatives of Norfolk Southern, and the Federal Railroad Administration, to discuss the railroad company's plans to cut down more than 100 of the 183 crepe myrtle trees along the rail line in Jonesboro.

The railroad company says it wants to remove trees and other plants that are more than 30 inches tall, within 25 feet of the center of the rail line, and 300 feet along the line on either side of a railroad crossing. The intent is to improve visibility, company officials have said.

Maddox said he has learned, however, that the city can apply for a variance, or essentially an exemption from that program, that would allow the trees to stay.

"It's just a variance to the program, to let us maintain these trees, as they have been for the last [nearly] 20 years, at no cost to the railroad," Maddox said. "Basically, we're asking for some relief from their policy, so we can keep our crepe myrtles."

Maddox said he plans to send a written variance request to Norfolk Southern today, express mail. He and Sebo expressed cautious optimism that it is possible Jonesboro may not have to lose any of its crepe myrtle trees.

While the variance request is not yet in the hands of Norfolk Southern officials, the mayor said his meeting with railroad, and federal, officials was a positive step.

"We had a good meeting," he said. "Everyone seemed amiable to working together to resolve this issue." The mayor said he was not sure how long it would take Norfolk Southern to process the city's variance request.

In a written statement, Norfolk Southern Director of Communications Susan Terpay said Jonesboro and Morrow, which also is facing the same situation with its own trees along the rail line, "can apply for a variance request to leave some of the trees along the railroad right of way."

But, she added, "The request would have to be reviewed NS [Norfolk Southern], and the safety of rail operations and public safety cannot be jeopardized."

Maddox said the federal railroad administration official, who attended the meeting on Monday, also inspected all of the city's railroad crossings. According to the mayor, the federal official said there were no line-of-sight issues at any of the crossings in the city. The trees were planted 18 years ago, with Norfolk Southern's permission.

While Jonesboro will have to wait for a decision from the railroad company, its mayor said the city has received a little bit of "breathing room." He said the company's deadline of July 1, for the city to remove the trees on its own, has been pushed back to an unspecified date, while the variance request is processed.

Maddox said railroad executives have promised to contact him two weeks before the trees are scheduled to be cut down — if they end up being cut down at all.

Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady has said the railroad had pushed Morrow's own deadline back to mid-October, so the city could have more time to find someone to partner with in moving their trees away from the rail line.

While Maddox was hesitant to claim a victory in the city's fight with Norfolk Southern, Sebo was much more openly optimistic. "I felt real positive about our chances," she said. "I'm hoping that it might work out to our favor."

Sebo said a Norfolk Southern official, present at the meeting, told her and Maddox that while the company's safety program has been underway for several years, "Jonesboro is the first city to challenge it."

Still, Sebo is not counting out the possibility that things might not work out in favor of the city. She said she is keeping the door open on the possibility that she, several city employees and residents might tie themselves to the crepe myrtles. She said she is still telling people, who planned to protest the possible removal of the trees with her, to be prepared to have to make a public stand, if the variance is not granted.

"[Jonesboro City Hall Administrative Assistant] Pat Daniel said she was disappointed that she wouldn't get to protest, because she wanted to stand in the middle of the rail line, and waive a sign," Sebo said. "And, I told her ‘Well, don't rule it out, yet, because we may still have to do it.'"