Hidden dangers line St. Johns County highway

Tree Expert: 'A very dangerous situation'

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – It's a heartbreak no mother gets over.  Nearly four year ago, Kathryn Jeffers lost her only child, when the car her 19-year-old daughter Kayla Register and two others where in, hit a downed tree on County Road 214 in St. Johns County, just west of the Interstate 95 overpass.  All three died.

Just last month, a tree fell in nearly the same exact spot blocking the roadway, which is a popular road used by locals to get to St. Augustine.   Thankfully, no one was killed. 

Jeffers says this latest incident adds insult to injury.

"It was like a back flash of everything happening," Jeffers explained. "I sit and wonder everyday how it happened? Why did it happen?  But I get no answers."

Kayla's step grandmother, Nathalie Yeoman, says she's afraid every time she drives under the huge trees.

"The bigger the tree, the more I'm worried," said Yeoman.

Channel 4 walked with Yeoman along CR 214 and she showed us trees that concern her, specifically two oak trees that hang over the road near where it intersects with Holmes Boulevard, about three miles from where her granddaughter died.  We were surprised by how some of them are still standing.  The roots that would anchor some of the trees have now been cut to create drainage along the road.  All the weight of the limbs are hanging over drivers.

Eddie Conlon, a certified arborist with Tree Medic in St. Johns County, visited the area where Kayla and her friends lost their lives to see if he thinks these trees along CR 214 are a danger to drivers.   He also examined the oak trees Yeoman is concerned about, 3 miles from the crash site.  Conlon agrees with Yeoman and is stunned by their condition.

"If you look behind you'll see the root flare has been cut very close to the trunk of the tree," Conlon explained to Channel 4. "If this was a tree on a property I was working on, I would have condemned this tree at the time they cut this root system this close to the tree."

Conlon says far too often crews brought in to create drainage, cut the roots that are actually keeping trees from falling on passing cars.

"It has taken the structural integrity out of the root system of this tree to the point that as an arborist, you have to condemn this tree because of the liability factor and the practicality of it falling," he added.

It's a frightening reality since so many people drive this section of County Road 214 near Holmes Boulevard. 

It was a huge oak tree that killed Kayla and her friends when it came down in the middle of the night about three miles away.  Two other cars hit that same tree that night back in 2009 before the car the three friends died in, was even discovered.

"I don't like that road.  If I had the choice, I would change the name to ‘Devil's Highway' because it took so many people's lives.  The trees, and no one's done anything about it," said Jeffers.

Last month, a tree fell across CR 214, just west of the I-95 overpass. It's nearly the same spot where Kayla and her friends died after hitting a fallen oak tree late at night. You can see in this picture, right beneath the downed tree, the memorials that stand for Kayla and Quinton.
Last month, a tree fell across CR 214, just west of the I-95 overpass. It's nearly the same spot where Kayla and her friends died after hitting a fallen oak tree late at night. You can see in this picture, right beneath the downed tree, the memorials that stand for Kayla and Quinton.

As Conlon examined the area where the tree fell across the roadway last month, which is also where Kayla and her friends died. He told Channel 4 he's worried, too.

"You have a very large, dead pine tree easily within falling distance of the road," Conlon explained.  "Definitely a danger, it's a dead tree."

He adds that all the trees are growing in wetlands, which is like a sponge, which means their roots are already shallow and spread out to hold them up.  But they've been cut to create drainage.

We talked with St. Johns County Commissioner Ron Sanchez about what Conlon showed us and explained to us.  We asked Sanchez if he agrees with Conlon and what can be done about the trees.

"I agree there's some down the road here that's going to do the same.  I have no doubt they are going to fall," admitted Sanchez. "Matter of fact, I constantly look for trees that are getting ready to cause a problem."

Sanchez says he drives CR 214 all the time and has had the county cut down trees he's seen hanging over the road.  But says the property is privately owned.

"It's state law.  We can't just go on there and do whatever we want," said Sanchez.

Channel 4 asked him if there was something he could do as a County Commissioner.

"All I can do is talk to the property owner and get his okay to do that," answered Sanchez. 

We asked if he would do that and Sanchez said, "I sure will.  It's a growing problem and it's all over."

Sanchez says county records indicate Jefferson-Smurfit, a paper product company, owns that property.   It turns out another company, RockTenn -- with headquarters in Norcoss, Ga. -- now owns Jefferson-Smurfit.

Thursday night -- more than a day after Channel 4's inquiry -- RockTenn sent this email reply:

"It does appear this is a parcel that was acquired by RockTenn in the May 2011 acquisition. We are working to confirm ownership. We did not own the property three years ago so are still in the process of verifying information about the accident you mention. If RockTenn determines the property is ours, we will have our forestry team inspect the property and take actions deemed appropriate to ensure safety issues are addressed."

Channel 4 will follow up on the company's findings and actions and report any developments.

If you've had problems with trees falling along CR 214 or any other road in our area, please email jwaugh@wjxt.com.

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