Education

Community petitions to save beloved San Luis Obispo High tree

This eucalyptus tree at San Luis Obispo High School could be chopped down to make room for a new administrative building and performing arts space. A petition signed by 1,500 people, including current and former students, hopes to save it.
This eucalyptus tree at San Luis Obispo High School could be chopped down to make room for a new administrative building and performing arts space. A petition signed by 1,500 people, including current and former students, hopes to save it. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A towering eucalyptus tree that has served as a traditional gathering spot for students at San Luis Obispo High School could be removed if the school district decides to move forward with plans to replace the landmark with a new building.

Nearly 1,500 people, including many current students and alumni, have signed an online petition to save the 85-year-old tree.

San Luis Coastal Unified School District officials haven’t decided officially on whether to remove the tree, but note that its roots have damaged sewer pipes. Removing the tree also would solve the problem of where to put a new building on a campus with limited space.

The so-called “Big Tree” is located near the school entrance across from the new gym, where a parking lot ends and a walkway to the administration building at the center of the campus begins.

“This tree is so beloved because it’s a symbol of the school,” said Carsten Frauenheim, a first-year Cal Poly student and 2015 San Luis Obispo High graduate. “The tree has been something the community associates with (the high school) for a long time, and it has been a thing of awe to the students. When we come to school, it’s something that doesn’t change.”

This tree is so beloved because it’s a symbol of the school.

Carsten Frauenheim, San Luis Obispo High School graduate

Frauenheim started the online petition, which has received comments from supporters such as “I love the Big Tree,” “Long Live the Big Tree,” and “Dude, that tree is crazy old and irreplaceable.”

“My sisters got picked up at that tree, I got picked up at that tree, and my little brother got picked up at that tree,” wrote commenter Jess Bustos. “It was a spot for relaxing and hanging out with friends. It’s a part of the school. Why would you take that away from the school? It’s a part of its history.”

Frauenheim said he has been urging school district officials not to cut down the tree and has encouraged others to speak out.

The district’s board of trustees is contemplating replacing the tree with a new student services building that would include a performing arts space. The district may plant trees elsewhere on campus as a way to make up for the loss of the eucalyptus, or the new building could be built around it, possibly taking away some parking.

The district is in the midst of planning $177 million in proposed repairs and upgrades for school facilities in the district, with about $120 million going to improvements at San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay high schools. The money that would pay for the building to replace the tree will come from the Measure D bond approved by voters in 2014.

Current and former San Luis Obispo High School students talk about saving "The Big Tree" on campus. The 85-year-old eucalyptus could be chopped down to make room for a new administrative building and performing arts hall.

Principal Leslie O’Connor said no definite plans have been made regarding the removal of the Big Tree. The district’s board is about six months away from making a decision and also will consider possible upgrades to its infrastructure of sewer and gas lines before it moves forward, Assistant Superintendent Ryan Pinkerton said.

Anthony Palazzo, the district’s director of facilities, operations and transportation, said the tree’s roots have grown into fissures in the sewer lines and plugged up the system. The school has had to install portable toilets at times, until the drains could be unplugged because of eucalyptus trees throughout campus.

“All the tree cares about is water in the sewer,” Palazzo said. “The roots find a crack or a joint and then grow like crazy.”

School officials say the tree also could present a danger because of the potential for falling limbs or even a complete collapse. An arborist’s report presented to the district’s board revealed that four years of drought “stressed” the tree, which also suffers from oozing sap and cankers unrelated to the shortage of rain.

“Below this tree are many targets that, should there be failure, could harm or kill people, destroy or damage buildings, vehicles and infrastructure,” wrote Chris Stier, a certified arborist, who recommended monitoring and cabling the tree. “… As this tree gets older and heavier it can develop problems structurally where the weight of branches cannot be sustained.”

Palazzo said a eucalyptus, a nonnative species, recently fell at Sinsheimer Elementary in San Luis Obispo, where it could have hurt someone, creating worries for district officials about eucalyptuses on campuses.

As this tree gets older and heavier it can develop problems structurally where the weight of branches cannot be sustained.

Chris Stier, a certified arborist

The board of trustees has budgeted for a building of about 14,250 square feet in the general vicinity of the tree, and school officials are meeting regularly with architects to work out plans. One idea puts the performance space in the exact location where the tree stands.

The proposed building would house a range of staff members, including counselors, special education coordinators, administrators and the athletic director.

“The building will become the face of the school and the front door of the school,” O’Connor said. “Where we are now, people will walk onto campus and wander aimlessly. They essentially have to get to the center of campus to pick up a sick child, or meet with someone. This space needs to be at front from a community standpoint.”

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