Road block

Despite 1,200 signatures on a petition and numerous phone calls and

questions from landowner Bob Rusk, it appears two cottonwood trees

located east of Florence will be cut down to allow for the realignment

project for U.S. Highway 50.

The trees, which Rusk estimated to be around 150 years old, are

located on a family farm. One of the trees is 16 feet in circumference

and the other is 12 feet.

Rusk, who owns the land along with his wife, Dian, became concerned 18

months ago when he learned a Kansas Department of Transportation

highway project was going to go through the front 130 feet of his


?I called them and they said ?We?re sorry but the plans have been

made,?? Rusk said.

But Rusk was not ready to give up.

With the help of his friends and neighbors, he circulated petitions

and gathered 1,200 signatures in three weeks to save the trees.

?I gave the 1,200 signatures to Dean Carlson (KDOT secretary), sent

them to him,? Rusk said. ?He ignored it. They didn?t even recognize

the fact they had gotten the letter.?

He continued calling KDOT, until representatives agreed to meet with

him and four of his neighbors. It took about 10 months and the

involvement of an attorney to get a meeting, according to Rusk.

?In that meeting, basically they preached to us,? Rusk said.

He said they were given three ?sermonettes? by KDOT?s lawyer,

including being told the decision would not be changed for four

landowners, the land is expendable and they had to learn to accept bad

things that happen because it will not change.

?Further, they asked us by what right we met with them to ask them to

change the plans, and they told us that we were two years too late to

change the plans,? he said.

Rusk said it was not possible for him to find out about it two years


According to Marty Matthews, KDOT spokesman, KDOT sends out notices of

projects when survey crews go out in the beginning life of a project.

?Any questions we have on our major projects, we have public meetings

and we have public hearings. They?re more meetings than hearings these

days,? Matthews said.

But Rusk said he still has questions which have not been answered.

One of the questions: How much the project is going to cost because of

the presence of a bridge, which was reconstructed in 1988.

?What they?re going to do now is build a brand new bridge and abandon

that one,? Rusk said.

He also questions some of the reasons KDOT gave him for why they

couldn?t move the highway to the south, where 200 feet of land is


He said KDOT representatives told him the highway couldn?t cross over

itself but Rusk knows of a place where it did at Peabody. They also

said there had to be enough land to make it a four-lane, but Rusk

questions why enough land was not purchased to make it four-lane by

Emporia and Newton.

?Every excuse they gave us, there are places where they have violated

what they claim their own policies are,? Rusk said.

When he sent a letter to KDOT asking the questions, it was given to

their lawyer. Rusk said the lawyer wrote back that he was shocked to

think Rusk would write that letter and ask those questions.

?We take input through the life of a project,? Matthews said. ?The

point where this project is, however, I know we have made offers and

tried to reach an agreement with the property owner and at this point

we are about to file for condemnation. So at this point, this is far

beyond that stage.?

?This has all been explained to the Rusks time and time again?the

engineering behind it, why we are doing what we are doing,? Matthews

added. ?They certainly have a good understanding of why we are doing

it. I?m not saying they agree with us, but they at least understand


Part of the reason Rusk is upset are the hours and money he has put

into cleaning the place up.

?One person like me, virtually all of society knows that I don?t have

a chance,? Rusk continued. ?No matter how good my cause, no matter how

wronged I have been, no matter how violent and how vile their actions

are, I don?t have a chance.?

Because the trees are not in the Florence city limits, the city could

do nothing about the matter except distribute the petitions.

?I understand how the homeowners feel about the trees,? said Florence

Mayor Edmond Spencer. ?If that was something that has been on my

property for years, I?m sure I would have felt the same way they did.

I guess there?s not a whole lot that can be done when KDOT decides

they?re going to build a road.?

Rusk wonders if more can be done. He has called the governor?s office,

contacted the secretary of transportation and written an editorial to

the Wichita Eagle. The Eagle also ran an article about it that was

picked up by USA Today.

?There is no discussion with KDOT,? he said. ?That is part of the

message because people think you can go discuss it with KDOT.?

He said maybe if enough people wrote letters it would make a


Dian?s parents lived in the farmhouse their entire married life, 63

years, and the trees were there the entire time.

?You can see those trees a mile away either direction. All you have to

do is tell people we are under the two big cottonwood trees,? he said.

KDOT has offered him $1,000 per tree, but Rusk said the county

extension agent in Marion valued the two trees at $33,000.

?I will tell you they are priceless to me,? he said.

Matthews said when looking at all of the factors, the two trees do not

justify moving the highway.

?We don?t take any great joy in chopping down people?s trees, but

unfortunately when you have to build highways, sometimes that is the

cost of building a highway,? he said.

Matthews points out that although the trees may be beautiful, they are

cottonwoods and it is their understanding they do not live much longer

than the life span of the two trees.

?If we were talking about redwoods or oaks or something that were

three or four hundred years old, it might be a little different, but

they are cottonwoods,? he said.

Matthews said they are piloting a couple of projects to bring the

public in earlier in the life of a project to get their concerns


Under federal guidelines, KDOT has to consider environmental, societal

and economic impacts when preparing a project.

?I expect that what KDOT is doing is that KDOT is just waiting me

out,? Rusk said. ?They will ultimately bulldoze my trees into a pile

and burn them in front of me, and they will build the highway and they

will know that over time society will forget. My trees will be dead, I

will be wronged, my property will be ruined

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