Originally created 04/28/97

Tree's fate to be decided



ALBANY, Ga. - After five years of wrangling, attorneys return to court today for a hearing that could determine the fate of the Friendship Oak, an embattled tree that is blocking a highway project.

The Georgia Department of Transportation wants to chop it down because it is blocking a $2.8 million road-widening project. A ragtag group of supporters contends that the 50-foot oak is a historic landmark and should be saved from the state's chain saws.

The future of the tree is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Louis Sands, who will hold a hearing on whether to lift an injunction he issued 18 months ago that blocked its removal.

The DOT, ordered by Judge Sands to study the tree's historic significance, found that the tree has none.

The tree stands in the middle of the intersection of Georgia 91 and Georgia 133, blocking a key commuter route linking Albany with its growing suburbs.

Cars have careened into its six-foot trunk, and last year a farm tractor ripped off one of its huge branches.

According to supporters, the tree is 300 years old and was at a crossroads for Indians in the 1700s. They say it was at the center of a former Army camp where 3,000 veterans of the Spanish-American War congregated during Albany's harsh winter of 1898-99.

"We think there are some real flaws in the government's position," said T. Gamble of Dawson, a lawyer for the tree supporters. "We think they looked at the evidence that was favorable to them and anything they didn't like, they just discounted."

The state's case includes statements from U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena; Wayne Shackelford, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, and John Humeston, a Federal Highway Administration official in Atlanta. All three said the tree was not historically significant.

"Local support is not as uniform as the plaintiffs suggest," Mr. Shackelford said.

He noted that the Dougherty County commission had been unwilling to pay to build the highway around the tree and that a resolution to honor the tree had failed before the Albany City Commission.

The DOT study said the tree's historical significance could not be documented by standards set by the National Register of Historic Places. To qualify for the National Register, it would have to be directly associated with a historic event, activity or person.

Mr. Gamble said the department had failed to consider the state and local significance of the tree, noting that it is described as a historic tree by the state's official tourist guide.

"We're not trying to say it's significant to everyone in the United States," Mr. Gamble said. "From the outcry here, people think it's pretty significant."