Maridel Kennedy Salisbury has fond childhood memories of climbing a large oak tree that grows on the northern edge of the San Luis Obispo High School campus, which backed right up to her home.
Salisbury’s mother, who died in 2013, used to say that she loved hearing the sounds of children and looking at the leaves.
Salisbury, who now lives in that home, was out by the oak on Wednesday, protesting the San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s decision to cut down the tree and others.
Most prominently, the district announced Wednesday that it plans to cut down the towering eucalyptus tree that’s served as a gathering spot for SLO High students for decades.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
District superintendent Eric Prater said in an email that the tree needed to be removed for three specific reasons:
“(a) 450 students pass underneath the massive limbs of this tree each school day. It will severely injure or kill anyone who happens to be underneath a limb if one were to fall. A recent arborist report places enough concern over its age (approximately 85 years), size of limbs, and stress due to numerous years of drought to bring into question its safety. I cannot justify keeping this tree — especially given its proximity to students and potential harm that it poses; (b) the tree’s root system has invaded the primary sewer pipe at the bottom of campus — thus creating sewage backups in the toilets up the hill and in the parking lot on numerous occasions; and (c) it is located in the area where we intend to build a student support center and theater at the base of campus.”
The eucalyptus will be replaced with a student support center and performing arts building, the district said in a news release, calling the tree “unsafe.”
And the large oak and others on the north side of campus, which Salisbury and her neighbors were keeping watch by, will be replaced with a nearly 15,000-square-foot, 12-classroom annex set to break ground next month, according to a news release.
Ryan Pinkerton, assistant superintendent for business services at the district, said in an email that crews planned to cut down the oak trees on Wednesday and Thursday. A date has not yet been set to remove the eucalyptus.
“They can chop down anything they want,” Salisbury said. “It’s a horrible example for young people.”
Salisbury added that most of the neighbors are upset because they were only notified that the tree removal would be happening about two-and-a-half to three weeks ago. She and some of her neighbors, who were gathered by the tree, pointed to renderings of the new annex that showed a tree line, which originally led them to believe the trees wouldn’t be touched.
“It’s a classic bait-and-switch,” said Salisbury’s husband, John Salisbury. John Salisbury had climbed up into the old oak tree at about 6 a.m. on Wednesday to protest its removal. He said he planned to sit in the tree again on Thursday. “This is just one more reason we don’t trust the government, because they do things like this.”
Prater, however, said the district reached out to neighbors more than two months ago on the tree-removal plans.
“Our team met with our impacted neighbors at the end of April and met multiple times since to discuss,” Prater said, when asked when neighbors were told about the removal. “We initiated this outreach.”
“Conflicts sometimes arise when renovation projects, new construction, or unforeseen natural forces collide with our mission to serve and educate students,” Prater said. “Any time a tree is removed, it is a difficult decision path for our school district. We do not take these things lightly.”
Prater said that the oak and other trees on the north end of campus needed to be removed in order to have enough space for the new building, as well as underground utilities. “The oak, in particular, is located within the footprint of this project, especially given the limited space we have on campus,” he said. “We have looked at alternatives but none appears to work given these objectives.”
Tina Hino, another neighbor, pointed to a study that showed looking at trees helps relieve mental fatigue in students.
“It’s just a shame,” Hino said. “If we’d been able to talk to someone, I’m sure we could have done something.”
“The location and layout of each building has been carefully planned to maximize space to provide the additional square footage needed for students to learn and thrive,” said Anthony Palazzo, the district’s director of facilities, in a news release. The release went on to say that the plan to improve the high school has been presented in open session at the district’s board of trustees meetings.
“We’re just heartbroken,” Maridel Kennedy Salisbury said.