A Beautiful Threat?

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How many dead motorists is a poplar tree worth? What about fourteen stately poplars that have become a familiar local landmark? The answer to both questions, for all but the most embittered misanthrope, is zero. When all the talk of clear zones, arboreal life spans, and triangles of visibility is said and done, that's why engineers with the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Public Works (DOT) insist on removing fourteen handsome old poplars from the side of Highway 104 at Big Pond, Cape Breton.The trees stand in the front yard of a 118-year-old Gothic Revival house that once served as a general store, post office and guest house overlooking the Bras d'Or Lakes at the intersection of Highway 104 and the Loch Lomand Road, about half an hour south of Sydney.They tower over the highway, forming a majestic canopy to the eyes of most travellers, a navigation hazard to the steely gaze of a civil engineer. The province is upgrading that section of the highway, one of two trunk routes into Sydney. For three years, owners Donny MacGillivray, a social historian at the University College of Cape Breton, and Sharise McKeigan have been negotiating with DOT to save the trees. The controversy has fuelled no fewer than three reports by tree specialists and one by an independent highway safety consultant.After all the palaver and consultations, the two sides reached - or stuck to - conclusions that might have been predicted at the outset from their divergent stakes. Talks came to an end Friday when the department declared the trees must go. The next instalment will either be the buzz of a chain saw or the serving of an injunction to block cutting.If the issue were as simple as human life vs. arboreal splendour, even the MacGillivray-McKeigans would likely concede. But like most clashes between competing social values, it's not that easy.DOT has turned up no records of anyone hitting the trees, and MacGillivray says interviews with neighbours produced none in living memory. That's with the road in its current, narrow, winding, hilly configuration. What odds a collision with the road straightened, levelled, and the centre line moved two metres away from the trees?Odds are precisely what are at stake. Highway engineers are guided in such matters by a "design regime" developed by the Transportation Association of Canada. It stipulates a myriad of complex formulas that determine how far solid objects should be from the roadway (clear zones), and how far away a vehicle approaching on an intersecting road should be visible to a motorist on the main highway (triangles of visibility).In the proposed configuration, says Don Carter, manager of construction for eastern Nova Scotia, the intersection flunks both tests, as long as the trees remain. He's backed up by a report from an independent highway-engineering firm. Realigning the highway to eliminate the problem would force the province to buy a long stretch of shorefront property including one cottage, and fill in a section of the Bras d'Or Lakes, says Carter.MacGillivray replies that the trees are barely inside the highway right-of-way, and will be further from the road once construction is complete. If the highway has performed safely for seventy years, he asks, why won't it be even safer in the new configuration?Consistency, replies Carter. "Once a driver knows what to expect on ahighway, you want a smooth flow," he said. "You don't want a driver to get used to several large radius curves and then suddenly find himself in a small radius curve."And so the debate rages, through these and other issues and sub-issues, each side armed with deeply felt, persuasively argued points, counterpoints, and counter-counterpoints.We're not really talking about a tree or a bunch of trees vs. a dead motorist. We're talking about a theoretical incremental increase in the chance of an accident based on marginal conformity or nonconformity with a complex set of road construction guidelines.Is this zero tolerance run amok? By requiring highway engineers to sign off on guidelines that have been prepared with worst case scenarios in mind, are we forcing an ultra-cautious mind set in which minute increments of increased safety trump all other social values - including the desire to preserve a stand of much admired trees?"In this situation, I've agonized over it," said DOT regional director Bruce Fitzner, Carter's boss. "Is it a real serious risk, or a remote thing?""I know how much it means to them," Fitzner said. "In their position, I'd be doing the same thing. But since the trees lie on the highway right-of-way, it's my responsibility. I have to make a decision for the public. I don't like to throw safety up in people's faces, but I'm not comfortable with leaving it there."

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