On Deadline blog: Fairmeadow tree doomed by careless digging, tight design -- but triggers new policy | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Fairmeadow tree doomed by careless digging, tight design -- but triggers new policy

Uploaded: Apr 26, 2012

The abrupt removal of a twin-trunk redwood tree at Fairmeadow Elementary School during spring break in early April is generating a new Palo Alto Unified School District administrative regulation relating to tree removal and communication about it.

The removal of the "fairy tree," as some students called it due to its gnarled trunk, caught pupils and their parents by surprise when they returned from the break. Even the stump was gone.

Officially, the tree is called "tree #28" due to its designation on a map of the Fairmeadow campus. Other, smaller redwoods separate Fairmeadow from Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School-- but those somehow don't have the magic of the fairy tree.

While initially planned for preservation, the tree fell victim to some careless heavy-construction work and building and sewer-line layouts that hemmed it in beyond safe levels, according to an arborist hired to monitor the tree during construction.

There's a coincidental irony to the removal, thus far unnoted in a vigorous exchange of commentary on Town Square (http://www.paloaltoonline.com/square/index.php?i=3&d=&t=17493). That irony is that April 11 was the annual Tall Tree Awards dinner, commemorating outstanding individuals, businesses and organizations and considered one of Palo Alto's premier honors. We now have one less tall tree in town, it seems.

The removal also comes on the eve of the arrival (May 15) of a new "urban forester" for Palo Alto to oversee Palo Alto's "urban forest" and its reputation as "the city that loves trees." It is unclear how the new forester, Walter Passmore (see http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=16689), will coordinate with the school district and its components of the urban forest, meaning trees.

Trees on school district land don't fall under city control.

The new administrative regulation was requested Tuesday night (April 24) by the district's Board of Education, which focused on the communication side of tree removal.

Inadequate communication about tree removals has plagued Palo Alto for years, most notably during save-our-trees battles of the 1990s when private lots would be routinely cleared for large homes, dubbed "McMansions" by some. This fostered the Tree Technical Manual, widely copied by other cities and government entities, and the concept of "heritage trees" deserving of preservation, whether on private or public land.

The issue of on-campus trees resurfaced four years ago when Palo Alto High School officials planned to remove an entire row of mature sycamore trees lining the Churchill Avenue "rear entrance" to the school. Protests before the school board saved the trees.

The famous removal of 63 holly-oak street trees along the California Avenue commercial strip in September 2009 is considered a classic case of communication failure, both internally within city staff and in outreach to the neighborhoods and tree-sensitive community.

There have been some communication successes, too. Those include the staff informing the community about the need to remove huge stone-pine trees in the center divider of San Antonio Road a few years back, after a huge limb fell. And there was a community meeting last year on the need to remove about 30 trees from Greer Park. That staff-led meeting turned angry suspicion into virtually unanimous support after a tree-by-tree PowerPoint slide show.

Yet despite community tree battles that date back to World War I, it seems peoples' memories aren't as long-lasting as the trees themselves, unless cut short, so to speak.

Prior to the removal of tree #28, the district seemed to be doing everything right about saving it and other trees on the Fairmeadow campus. It hired a consulting arborist and horticulturalist, Saratoga-based Deborah Ellis, to monitor the construction and tree-care.

Up to mid-March, all was going well, and hand-excavation of the tree's roots was done well, she reported. But on March 27 she submitted a remarkably candid document about damage to the twin-trunk tree to PAUSD Project Manager Peter Tiwana and Operations Supervisor Chuck McDonnell and to the project general contractor, Best Contracting.

A backhoe operator smashed into and tore the tree's roots, she said, noting that "all the care that was taken in the excavation and hand cutting of roots was undone by the heavy equipment operator."

A close realignment of a sewer-line trench and a parking space also threatened the tree's overall stability, she said.

"I cannot predict or guarantee what will happen to this tree if all planned improvements are constructed around it," she warned.

"There seem to be more construction damage thrown at this tree every week!"

A draft of the new district tree administrative regulations will be circulated to the community for feedback before being handed to the Board of Education for approval, according to Bob Golton, facilities and bond-program manager for the district. Golton has expressed regret that the stately tree needed to be removed, and acknowledged that communication should have been better.

"I don't think there was negligence around the demise of the tree," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said in an e-mail, deferring detailed comments to Golton. "I think it was simply too close to the building and a sewer line compromised its root structure.

"Sometimes trees we hope to save can't be saved."

"Yes, to amplify on what Kevin said, we believe that it would be good idea to have a written administrative regulation re communication and execution of tree removal," Golton said, also in an e-mail. "We will review it with community members and make it available when it is finalized." Golton said he hoped to have a draft circulating by next week and a final policy by the end of May.

Regarding tree #28, Golton said "efforts were made during the design phase to preserve the tree, while actually being able to construct that eight classroom building. The foundation installation was proceeding as planned. However, the actual depth of the existing sewer line was four feet more shallow than was anticipated ? because the old drawings on 50-plus-year-old facilities are sometimes inaccurate.

"This caused the sewer line installation to be relocated much closer to the tree than the drawing showed and so the tree root structure was being impacted more seriously than planned."

In terms of contractor carelessness damaging the roots, Golton said "there is generally nothing in contracts to dollar penalize contractors for damage that is done to trees. In this case, also, there were other contributing factors beyond his control."

The cost for the three replacement trees will be about $2,000.

"We are looked at this as a lesson in communication," Golton concluded.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be reached at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.