A day after San Luis Unified Coastal School District officials said they didn’t have a timeline for a controversial plan to cut down several trees on the SLO High School campus, work crews showed up just after sunrise Friday and began bringing them down.
John Salisbury, whose property abuts the campus and one of its large oak trees — and who had previously protested the district’s decision to remove the trees — said he set out to stop them the best way he knew how: He sat down on a platform near the base of the shared tree, pulled out a book, and refused to move, hindering the crew’s progress Friday evening.
“I told them I was just out there getting my dose of Vitamin D, reading a book in my backyard,” he said. “They couldn’t move me.”
The district announced plans Wednesday to remove a towering eucalyptus tree that’s served as a gathering spot for SLO High students for decades because the tree was “unsafe” and to make way for a student support center and performing arts building to be built on campus. The district also confirmed plans to remove a large oak and other trees from the north side of campus for the construction of a new 12-classroom Annex Building set to break ground next month.
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Ryan Pinkerton, assistant superintendent for business services at the district, said crews planned to cut down some of the trees this week because it was the safest time to do so, while no students were on campus. A date had not yet been set to remove the eucalyptus.
“We do not currently have students on campus or any sports camps active on site this week so this is the safest time for us to complete the work,” Pinkerton said. “While it is undesirable to remove trees on campus, the district has a one-to-one tree replacement plan in place for every tree removed due to construction that will be implemented over the next five years.”
District Director of Facilities Anthony Palazzo said the plan is part of a $177 million bond effort (Measure D) to address longstanding technology, facility and infrastructure needs at district schools, especially San Luis Obispo High School.
“There is virtually no space to build on the SLOHS campus,” he said. “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.”
Neighbors protested the plan to remove trees, with Salisbury even sitting in the large oak, which abuts his property, for most of Wednesday.
Then on Thursday, no crews showed up, and district officials told The Tribune there was no estimated date for when the trees would come down. The next day, Salisbury said he woke up to crews at 7:15 a.m.
“It was another bait-and-switch so no one would show up,” he said, noting that his first thoughts when seeing the crews there were “not fit to run on air.”
That’s when he took his book out into his backyard and sat underneath the tree.
Because of his position, crews were unable to safely remove the tree without potentially harming Salisbury, delaying its removal, according to Palazzo.
“Unfortunately the neighbor has decided to hinder the progress by sitting right under the tree on his side of the yard,” Palazzo said in an email Friday afternoon. “This is forcing the crew to work much slower so nothing large falls on him. This is costing us time and money. The work will now have to extend into next week due to this.”
As of Saturday evening only about a quarter of the tree remained. Salisbury said he intends to continue his protest.
“I’m just a farmer,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like civil disobedience before, but you know, desperate times. I don’t want to be a jerk about it, but it’s just ridiculous.”
Staff writer Lindsey Holden contributed to this report.