3 more trees fall across 'Devil's Highway'

Hidden dangers continue to line popular St. Johns County roadway

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. - Three more trees fell along a popular St. Johns County roadway during last week's storm, putting drivers in danger -- and they don't even know it. 

Channel 4's investigation of County Road 214, west of Holmes Boulevard, began last January when a viewer sent in a picture of a fallen tree (below).  It had fallen in nearly the same spot as a large oak tree four years ago that killed three people when the car they were in hit the downed tree during a bad rain storm. 

Our firs

t story in our investigation aired in February and because of it, the company that owns the land where those trees fell, told us it would cut down dozens of trees it had identified as dead or in jeopardy of falling on that section of CR 214.  The problem is, the company waited three weeks to do it and three more trees fell on the road this past weekend.

"I think they need to get on the ball and get these trees taken down," said Kathryn Jeffers, whose 19-year-old daughter Kayla Register was one of the three who died in that crash with the downed oak tree back in 2009.

Jeffers is angry and frustrated to see more trees falling, putting drivers in danger. 

Early Friday morning, a car hit a tree that fell across CR 214, just west of I-95.  Thankfully, the driver was not hurt. 

Then, 12 hours later, during Saturday's relentless rain, two more trees fell very close to the first one.  These trees fell not far from a road memorial that marks where Kayla died four years ago.

"I think they're going to keep falling and someone else is going to get killed," warned Jeffers (pictured, right).

Right after Channel 4's investigation aired in February, a viewer sent us pictures of what happened to his car.  He says he was driving on the same stretch of road two years before Kayla's death, when a tree fell on his SUV.  He was not seriously hurt, but told us it had to be Divine Intervention.

We've been working with St. Johns County Commissioner Ron Sanchez for months to track down the owner of the land. 

Channel 4 pressured the company, RockTenn, to do something about the dead and leaning trees.  It owns the large parcel of land on the north side of CR 214.  At the time of Kayla Register's death the land was owned by Jefferson- Smurfitt.  It has since been bought by RockTenn. 

A spokesperson with RockTenn sent us an email in April saying their hands were tied.  Robin Keegan said safety is RockTenn's top priority, but it could not remove the trees without a permit.

The email she sent reads, in part, the land is, "…Under a conservation easement with the St. Johns River Water Management District.  The District must give legal permission for any trees to be removed."

The company says after our February story it inspected the land and identified about 100 trees that needed to come down.  It was just waiting for the permit to do it. 

Channel 4 went to see for ourselves.  Commissioner Sanchez met us and we did find several trees with pink survey ribbons. 

We called the St. Johns Water Managment District.  It confirmed a permit was needed and then forwarded us a letter it had just sent to RockTenn giving the company permission to move forward with the tree cutting.  In that letter the Water Management District acknowledges several trees had the potential to fall into the right-of-way of CR 214. 

That letter was received three weeks ago.  When we asked why the company didn't act immediately, Keegan told us the tree crew needs to wait until the ground is drier.  The parcel of land is considered wetlands.

Two of the trees that fell over the weekend, had pink ribbons wrapped around their base, indicating they had been marked for removal because they were in danger of coming down. 

"I understand that it's wetlands, but it's never going to dry up.  Ya know they need to get out there and take them down.  It's been four years since I lost my daughter and it's taken them this long to do something," said Jeffers.

We sent pictures of the trees that fellover the weekend to RockTenn asking what it's going to do now.  The company now says it has moved up its schedule to remove some 100 trees in danger of falling.  This is the email company spokeswoman, Robin Keegan, sent to Jennifer the afternoon before her story was to air. 

"RockTenn supports the safety of the community and is planning to remove the identified trees in the area near county Road 214 in the next week to 10 days. RockTenn has been working with the St. Johns River Water Management District, who holds the conservation easement on the property to gain permission to remove the identified trees. After reviewing the conservation easement and the selected trees they have granted permission to remove the trees.  Normally, sustainable forestry practices mandate that the tree removal occur when the ground conditions on the tract are drier. However, we will begin the tree felling as soon as possible. The trees will be felled and will be pushed to a safe distance from the road until such time that ground conditions allow for their removal. Then the site will be restored as appropriate."

Channel 4 will continue to follow this story and make sure the company keeps its word. Stay tuned for updates to this story.

Copyright 2013 by News4Jax.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.