Giant sequoia falls victim to school construction

Come Monday, this 40-foot-tall sequoia no longer will grace the BHS grounds.    - Meagan O
Come Monday, this 40-foot-tall sequoia no longer will grace the BHS grounds.
— image credit: Meagan O'Shea/Staff Photo

The 40-foot specimen is in the way of a sewer line, school officials say.

Construction at Bainbridge High School hit its first snag this week in the form of a 40-foot-tall sequoia that will be cut down Monday due to its location atop a sewer line.

The district said the tree, if left alone, would damage the school and endanger construction crews, who need to be able to safely reach a sewer line buried 10 feet beneath its roots.

“We’re very sorry this tree has to come down,” said school board member Mary Curtis. “Unfortunately, this was the wrong tree for that location.”

Construction workers, in the midst of a renovation to the school’s 300 building, were trying to locate the sewer line earlier this week.

To their surprise, it was buried directly beneath the tree, the roots of which were partially damaged during the search.

Capital projects director Tamela VanWinkle said the district considered alternatives to falling the tree, located near the southeast corner of the science wing.

Those alternatives included moving it to another location, but VanWinkle said they were ultimately left with no choice but to cut it down.

The tree’s wood has been offered to island artist Cecil Ross for a future art project.

The district consulted island plant pathologist Olaf Ribeiro before making its decision.

“Given the present location of the tree and the level of soil disturbances that will be occurring in the root zone of this tree, removal appears to be the only safe option,” Ribeiro wrote in a June 28 report to the district.

The report also cited the tree’s problematic and potentially dangerous location near busy pedestrian and vehicle areas, saying that the “stability of the tree in a windstorm cannot be guaranteed.”

“Sequoias are not an ideal tree to be growing in a confined space such as this situation,” Ribeiro said.

He suggested the possibility of anchoring the tree with wires to mitigate damage and stimulate growth, but said sequoias are often difficult to nurse back to health.

The tree caused other problems as well.

In a letter to VanWinkle, Jay Hindmarsh, of Mahlum Architects, said the root system of the tree “compromised the integrity at certain areas of the existing perimeter footing drains, sanitary sewer lines and storm drain lines, and these will likely require replacement.”

Hindmarsh also said the tree’s roots appear to have grown under the building’s concrete foundation, raising the potential for future damage.

Moving the tree, VanWinkle said, would have cost $75,000, compared to the $700 it will cost to cut the tree and deliver the wood to Ross, should he accept it.

She said the district will replace the tree with one or more trees that are better suited for the area.

Between the tree and the sewer line, VanWinkle didn’t know which object was there first, but said the sewer line was located in a different spot than indicated in old architectural drawings, which prompted the contractor to begin his search.

No other trees are scheduled to be removed as part of the science wing renovation.

As for the larger renovation, set to begin next year, Curtis said the school is very conscious of the public desire to save trees.

“Everybody respects the trees,” she said. “This situation caught us a little off guard.”

Both Curtis and VanWinkle said there is no established district policy regarding tree removal, but she is hopeful this incident will generate a public dialogue that might better direct future policies.

The city is currently drafting a tree ordinance that would establish clearer parameters for tree-cutting island-wide.

Controversy followed a similar situation at the school three years ago, when the district cut down a 100-year-old elm tree that threatened to damage school property.

Ross turned that tree into a table that will display student artwork at the school. District representatives are hopeful the wood from the sequoia will be put to an equally good use.

“We are sensitive to the environment,” VanWinkle said. “We make every effort to preserve every tree we can.”

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