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Landscaping rift along Fairbanks' Illinois Street takes root between city and state

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Posted: Thursday, September 19, 2013 12:00 am

FAIRBANKS — A $200,000 difference of opinion has sprouted up between the state and the city and borough in regard to landscaping in the new Illinois Street corridor.

The state Department of Transportation is planting grass in parts of the right-of-way corridor and laying pavement down in other parts as opposed to planting the trees and shrubs that the mayors of both the city and borough requested.

Northern region DOT director Steve Titus said the $23.6 million contract for the Illinois Street project called for grass, not trees and shrubs, to be planted in the Illinois Street corridor and that that’s what the state is going to do, even though the policy committee for the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System made a recommendation to DOT last month to plant trees and shrubs.

“We thought it would save money, be less maintenance and be more aesthetically pleasing,” said Fairbanks Mayor Jerry Cleworth, who sits on the seven-member committee.

The recommendation came too late to be feasible, Titus said. The two-year project is scheduled to be completed Sept. 30, and the FMATS policy committee made its recommendation at a meeting on Aug. 21, Titus said.

There’s also the fact that planting trees and shrubs would cost approximately $200,000 more than growing grass and putting down pavement, Titus said.

“There’s a little bit of a difference of opinion on this and it’s a $200,000 decision,” he said.

While there is money left over in the project to cover that cost, Titus said that money was not specifically designated for landscaping.

Besides, the state, not the city or borough, will be the entity that maintains anything that is planted in the corridor, Titus said.

Both Cleworth and Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins, who also sits on the FMATS policy committee, have told Titus they would prefer to have trees and shrubs planted in the corridor rather than grass.

The city, which will maintain the roads and sidewalks on Illinois Street, tried to negotiate a deal with the state to assume responsibility for landscaping maintenance in exchange for something else but only if trees and shrubs, not grass, were planted, Cleworth said. The state refused, he said.

“The only reason we would take over maintenance is to get the trees and shrubs,” Cleworth said.

Hopkins said it boils down to a basic disagreement between DOT and the FMATS policy committee.

“We see it as our project; they see it as their project,” Hopkins said. “It appears it would work quite easily, but DOT said no and we don’t have many things to push back on.”

FMATS coordinator Donna Gardino said she can’t recall DOT ever rejecting a recommendation from the FMATS policy committee.

“This really hasn’t happened before,” she said.

Because the project is being funded with federal money, DOT is tasked with maintaining any kind of infrastructure associated with it, Titus said. DOT cannot enter into maintenance agreements with individuals, only government entities, he said. If the city wanted to take on the landscaping maintenance and then make arrangements with individual property owners, that’s their prerogative, but that’s not what the city wanted, he said.

City public works director Mike Schmetzer said he polled property owners along the Illinois Street corridor and the majority — four out of five he spoke with — all voiced support for trees and shrubs rather than grass, though Titus said he has heard from only one of those property owners.

 The city is also planning to plant trees along the Cushman Street corridor when that street gets redone in two years. Planting trees and shrubs along Illinois Street would have matched that theme, Cleworth said.

But if the city and borough wanted a coordinated landscaping effort along on the corridor leading to the box store complex, they should have brought it to the attention of the state sooner, Titus said. Even though DOT is planting grass in the corridor, that doesn’t mean trees and shrubs can’t be planted later, he said.

“If we’re going to have a coordinated (landscaping) effort of the Cushman Street/Illinois Street/Helmericks Avenue corridor ,then why don’t we do that,” Titus said. “Then we can get communication with the property owners and get them involved.”

“I’ve told both mayors I think it would be a good idea to have the FMATS policy committee get together and decide what they want and fund it,” he said. “The policy committee has funding they could use for that and we could come up with a design that’s consistent. DOT is willing to come to the table and be a player in that.”

Planting trees and shrubs at this point in the project is “kind of like shooting from the hip,” Titus said.

That’s not how Cleworth sees it.

“It can always be done later on, but it would be nice to do it now and put it to bed when money is there,” he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.

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