Sixth Street expansion work to march through symbol of autumn beauty

The bulldozers are coming.

And Bill Naff and his wife, Darlene, are trying to persuade state highway officials to spare a giant maple tree in their front yard that each fall dazzles passersby with its startling mix of red, gold and orange leaves.

“Just about every year, we have somebody pull in the driveway here and ask if they can come onto the property to take a photograph of that tree,” Bill Naff said. “For those of us who live out here, it’s sort of a landmark.”

The Naffs, both 71, live in an older one-story white house on 3 acres about a quarter-mile west of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.

The tree  it’s as tall as a five-story building  is in their front yard, most of which is in the path of Kansas Department of Transportation plans to expand Sixth Street. The two-lane road will grow to four lanes with a median added from Wakarusa Drive to Kansas Highway 10. Construction should start in 2004.

The Naffs expect to lose about 40 trees to the project.

The maple tree is 50 or 60 feet from where the roadway will be, but it lies within the area that’s to be sloped in accordance with KDOT regulations.

The Naffs, who bought their home in 1984, have asked KDOT to alter the slope in a way that would spare the tree or, perhaps, build a retaining wall around it.

“I know we can’t stop progress, and I know they have to have the room to do what they’re going to do,” Naff said. “We’re not standing in the way of any of that  it just seems like such a shame to waste a tree like this.”

KDOT spokesman Marty Matthews said the department’s engineers would take “a second look” at sparing the tree. But he was not optimistic.

“It doesn’t look promising,” Matthews said. “It’s my understanding that if we went with a retaining wall, the wall would have to be 16 feet tall. That’s an unheard-of height.”

And even if the tree is spared, its roots likely would be irreparably harmed by the slope.

“It wouldn’t do much good to save the tree, only to have it topple over in five years because of all the damage to its roots,” Matthews said.

Sloping, he said, is a standard safety practice.

“The idea is to provide as much ‘clear zone’ as possible so when an event causes someone to leave the road, with an easier slope, they have a better chance of surviving.”

Late Monday morning, Naff measured the tree’s circumference: 8 feet, 10 inches at chest height.

“This tree is at least a hundred years old, maybe older,” he said.

Naff said he’s not protesting the loss of a nearby oak that’s every bit as big as the maple.

“It’s not as pretty,” he said.