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SLO City council 'talks' to tree

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After meeting a controversial local pine tree firsthand, then “talking” to it—you know, getting to know it a little—the San Luis Obispo City Council majority decided they just couldn’t see it go to the chipper.

On Sept. 4, the council sided with its own city arborist and tree committee over a prominent investment and development corporation’s wish to remove a large Italian stone pine tree it said is creating a safety problem near the entrance of one of its properties.

The tree in question stands roughly 30 feet tall and juts out toward a parking lot in front of the CenCal Health building in the Mission Medical complex in the 1200 block of Morro Street near downtown San Luis Obispo. The building is owned by Westpac Investments, Inc.

In a narrow 3-2 vote, the council upheld a decision by City Arborist Ron Combs and a unanimous ruling by the city’s tree committee to deny the tree’s removal, both of which found the tree didn’t meet any of the city’s criteria, such as constituting undue hardship to the owner.

Council members Dan Carpenter and Andrew Carter voted to uphold the appeal.

Carol Florence, a planner with San Luis Obispo-based Oasis Associates, spoke on Westpac’s behalf before the council, noting that the tree’s roots were uplifting sections of the sidewalk and walkway in front of CenCal Health’s front entrance, where she said there has been at least one injury.

Florence described the tree as “not an appropriate urban species.” She did offer a concession, however, to replace the Morro pine with up to three trees elsewhere in the city.

“If there’s one thing our firm does, it’s plant trees,” she said.

Hamish Marshall, vice president of Westpac Investments, Inc., told the council that the request was an odd one, but that the number of cases involving Americans with Disabilities Act claims is on the rise across the state, and he wanted to protect himself from an injury-related lawsuit.

“This is not something I’m really comfortable doing,” Marshall said. “I feel like the Big Bad Wolf being up here.”

City council members responded that they had each visited the tree in question, some quipping that, yes, they had “talked” to the tree, and decided it shouldn’t be removed.

Arborist Combs said that the property owner could uplift the pavers and trim some of the roots to safely even out the pavement. He estimated the tree could be anywhere from 30 to 50 years old.

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