100-year-old oak tree will be cut down in Atascadero

The oak tree outside Sylvester's Burgers in Atascadero in September 2014.
The oak tree outside Sylvester's Burgers in Atascadero in September 2014. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Atascadero resident Chris Johns.

Citing concerns about public safety, city leaders unanimously agreed Tuesday that a century-old oak tree in downtown Atascadero must come down.

The Atascadero City Council was tasked with weighing the community’s hopes of saving the tree with the risks of its heavy, twisted limbs falling on people.

The council faced three options: Cut down the tree, trim its branches and treat its overall health conditions, or do ultrasound-style testing to identify the extent of the tree’s internal decay.

The issue came to the council as a public appeal of the Planning Commission’s September decision to cut down the tree after a business owner expressed concerns about a limb that fell on the sidewalk in front of his business last year.

Tuesday’s meeting could lead to discussions on a master plan for how to tackle the issue of maintaining and replacing other city trees, Mayor Tom O’Malley said.

No timeline for those talks were set, however.

The commission had previously voted 4-3 to approve a request by the owners of Sylvester’s Burgers at El Camino Real and West Mall to remove the oak in the city’s right-of-way in front of the eatery’s property.

Last October, a large, 18-inch-diameter limb broke off the tree and fell onto the sidewalk near the eatery’s patio, which is also a popular hangout for youths from Atascadero’s middle school and high school after class lets out on weekdays.

The city’s contracted arborist, Michael Bova, examined the tree after the limb fell.

The 100-year-old coast live oak was one of several saplings in a landscaped row dotting the edges of downtown’s Sunken Gardens seen in a black-and-white photo from 1919 that was included in city staff’s presentation.

The small trees, which weren’t more than 10 feet tall at the time, were some of the only fixtures on the lawn leading up to Atascadero founder E.G. Lewis’ historic City Administration Building.

In their natural environment, coast live oaks can live up to 400 years, Bova said.

“But in a landscape setting, with asphalt, which creates heat zones and limited water, it’s rare to see something progress more than 100 years,” he said.

Today, with its twisted limbs and grand, 70-foot stature, the downtown landmark has garnered much public affection, particularly as the discussion over its fate played out.

Bova determined that the tree is a hazard and has shown signs of decay and cavities, along with drought stress and cankers on its trunk. He reported a risk rating of between eight and nine out of a maximum of 10.

The tree’s age, its nonnative habitat under asphalt and concrete, and previous pruning work over the years contributed to its current state, Bova said.

“If it could cry, you’d be hearing it,” he added.

Still, he recommended trying to save the tree before cutting it down even though he said “bringing it back is unlikely” because the tree is “in a spiral of decline.”

Concerned residents considered appealing the Planning Commission’s decision, rallying on social media and eventually gaining the attention of Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi, who ultimately requested the item go before the council.

Atascadero resident Chris Johns first considered appealing the commission’s decision.

On Tuesday, he called the tree “a living piece of Atascadero’s heritage.”

“I didn’t really want to do this, but when I found out that the tree was going to be cut down, I had to do something,” Johns said. “I feel that if the majority of people were to drive by one day and see the Sylvester’s tree cut down … I think there would have been a lot of (backlash).”

Three other residents also asked the council to save the tree, while two additional residents reminded the council that legal implications could arise if the tree falls and hurts someone.

“I’ve been trying to think every which way on how to save this tree,” Councilman Brian Sturtevant said. “But what keeps coming back in my mind is safety.  … Those limbs are over a patio. They’re over a sidewalk. And people are there every day.”

Councilwoman Heather Moreno had similar reservations, giving a long pause before voting to cut the tree down.

“(I vote) ‘yes,’ but with reservation,” she said. “To me, safety does trump (everything else). And if someone got hurt, I couldn’t get past that.”

Brian Englund, owner of Sylvester’s Burgers, said Tuesday that he supported either removing the whole tree or just the limbs deemed unsafe. He noted that he loves the tree for its natural shade and for aesthetics but that the risks it posed were too high.

“I only want to do what’s best for the people sitting under it,” he said.

A date for when the tree would be cut down was not immediately available Wednesday.

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