ODOT’s "Softer Side" Revealed in Beautification Effort

Sat February 22, 2003 - National Edition

FAIRBORN, Ohio (AP) _ Michael Horton has a 5-acre spread with prairie grasses, woods and a pond that attract birds, rabbits and an occasional coyote.

But when Horton stood on the edge of his property in this Dayton suburb and looked out onto state-owned land along Interstate 675, all he could see was a graded hill of sand and gravel pimpled with scraggly pine trees, bush honeysuckle and poison ivy.

”It looked gosh-awful ugly,’ Horton said. ”I couldn’t stand it any more.’

So three years ago, he joined a growing number of people who volunteer time and money to spruce up and maintain highway land.

Officials credit the increased interest to heavy promotion and word of mouth.

J. Wolfe Tone, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, a private group that works to conserve land and protect natural resources, points to the desire to fight urban sprawl.

”Everyone is kind of looking at their landscape disappear and trying to preserve special areas that are left,’ he said. ”They’re saying, ’I can start in my own back yard and work with what I have.’

The work saves states money in mowing and maintenance.

Minnesota, which began its program in the early 1990s, has saved about $1 million a year.

”It’s a good way to involve the public,’ said Todd Carroll, landscape architect for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. ”The community takes more pride in what has been planted.’

Ohio’s program started in 1996. The Ohio Department of Transportation has about 50 projects in District 8, which covers seven southwestern Ohio counties.

”Every year we get more and more calls for that kind of thing,’ said Brenda Bradds, a horticulturist and spokeswoman for District 8. ”We have some pretty neat areas. We had people who just wanted to plant bulbs. Then they came back in and wanted to do some trees.’

Volunteers planted a field of daffodils inside a ramp area off of Interstate 275 in Anderson Township near Cincinnati. Residents of nearby Forest Park planted ornamental trees off another I-275 ramp. And the owners of a retail complex off Interstate 71 in Warren County planted native grasses and forsythia bushes.

In Ohio, residents design their own improvements, and ODOT reviews the plan and property before issuing a permit. The permit is free, but the volunteers must pay for the plants.

Minnesota helps residents design the projects and pays for half of the plants, herbicides and other materials needed to get the work started.

The state hires private contractors to oversee the projects for two years to make sure the plantings get established. After that, the residents take over.

About 500 volunteers in Detroit Lakes, Minn., planted about 3,000 shrubs there. And half of the 150 residents of Wolverton turned out for a project in that farming community, Carroll said.

Tone said the Ohio program shows a ”softer side’ of ODOT, which he doesn’t normally associate with landscaping.

”I can’t see any down side,’ he said. ”Hats off to the people who are willing to spend their own time and own money to help beautify a highway system.’

Horton cut back the honeysuckle and poison ivy and planted prairie grasses. He seeded the land annually for three years.

”I know people like it because when I work out there, they honk,’ he said. ”And it increased my grassland space for my grassland birds.’

Horton, a veterinarian, said he doesn’t know how much time and money he has spent on the project.