The San Luis Obispo Public Works Department meant well when it planted a 20-foot-tall deador cedar in a planter in Mission Plaza in Downtown San Luis Obispo in August.
The "living Christmas tree" would grow bigger and bigger each year, and give downtown onlookers a positive feeling, knowing that the city is saving money and keep a tree alive, rather than killing one each year.
For 20 years the city and the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association has considered this, seen as a better option than purchasing an expensive farm-raised Douglas fir Christmas tree from Oregon, propping it up with crews, and then “recycling” it after the holiday.
So, they planted it.
In turn, the city heard an earful from people who didn’t like where the tree was planted, because it blocked the view of the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Several residents—many of whom are involved with the mission’s historical or religious aspects, and a few students at Mission College Preparatory High School—wrote letters to the council, asking them to remove the tree.
Their main concerns were that the tree would inhibit the view to the world-renowned historical landmark, and it would get in the way during the high school’s graduation, which takes place in the plaza every May. Others also questioned whether the tree would fit with the multitude of other types of trees at the mission, and if the city needed yet another tree to water during the drought.
It wasn’t just Catholics who were concerned—residents from the Jewish community were worried that the tree would block the view of a menorah that’s ceremonially lit there every year.
The ire came in part because those associated with the mission—which has jurisdiction over half of the plaza, essentially sharing it with the city—said they were not consulted. Instead, they said city staff and the Downtown Association just went ahead and planted it.
That didn’t sit well.
“It’s an important building, not just to the city, not just to the county, but nationally and worldwide,” said Michael LaFreniere, a longtime volunteer at the mission.
LaFreniere and two others held up several large photographs of the mission, depicting how the tree impacted the view from the plaza’s entrance.
Dan Krieger, a prominent local historian and a co-founder of the city’s cultural heritage commission who gives tours and talks on local missions, echoed those concerns.
“We feel that we’re somewhat victimized by rampant bureaucracy on this,” Krieger said, speaking on behalf of the mission’s pastor, Fr. Russell Brown. “The lack of consultation was, to me and to the father, stunning.”
After hearing the multitude of concerns, the City Council had a similar reaction to the tree and the process behind its planting.
“I’m as much a tree hugger as anybody is anymore,” Councilmember John Ashbaugh said. “But this is a very hard tree to hug.”
The council voted 4-1 to remove the tree from the current location after the holidays. Councilmember Carlyn Christianson was the lone dissent vote.
Deciding what to do with the tree was another question, however. City Arborist Ron Combs said that the tree may or may not survive a transplanting, and it would likely be an expensive process.
The council delayed making a decision on exactly where to move the tree in order to allow city staff to explore options. Until then, joked Ashbaugh, once the holidays are over, that tree may have no place to go.
“I think you got a great site for this tree, and that would be at the homeless center, because this is a homeless tree,” Ashbaugh said.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay