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[whitespace] Councilmembers, commissioners wading into fray over school trees

Saratoga--Saratoga's City Council has put off writing a resolution that would, in effect, condemn the Saratoga Union School District Board of Trustees' decision to chop down 10 eucalyptus trees at Saratoga School before beginning a renovation plan on the campus.

The council, on Feb. 3, took the item to consider the resolution off the agenda of its Feb. 9 meeting so that it could instead visit the school on Feb. 8 with Superintendent Mary Gardner, who will give a tour of the campus and provide the reasoning behind the school's renovation plans.

Gardner also invited the city's Planning Commission and the Heritage Preservation Commission to the meeting at the school.

The Heritage Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission will review the school's plans and add their comments, which will be taken into consideration when the SUSD school board considers whether it needs to forge ahead with a full-fledged environmental impact report.

The council was hoping to get its resolution on record to the school district before the Feb. 18 cutoff date for responses to the school district's initial environmental study, should a negative declaration not be granted and a final EIR completed.

Even if the school board decides to grant negative declaration and say that an EIR isn't needed, the council can still voice its disapproval of the proposal if it wishes.

All responses received by the district will be taken into consideration by the school board, which issued a statement asking for responses when it issued the initial environmental study last month.

In the initial study, negative declaration was recommended to the board by LSA Associates Inc., the company that conducted the study.

Gardner actually invited the three city bodies to meet with her in a letter dated Jan. 21, and also asked that the letter be used as a request for the project's prompt consideration by the city's Heritage Preservation Commission.

The HPC will review the district's proposal because Saratoga School is on the city's Heritage Resources Inventory, and is therefore subject to compliance under the California Environmental Quality Act, which states that cultural impacts must be taken into consideration in projects with historical significance.

The school itself is exempt from city zoning ordinances, but because the the Saratoga School has historical value to the city, it is subject to review by the Heritage Preservation Commission.

CEQA states that any alteration of a historic property must be analyzed in an environmental impact report. The initial environmental study presented last month does not state that removing the trees will carry a negative impact. Instead, it lists a weathervane and a bell as the only objects with historical importance.

School board member Stan Perry attended last week's council meeting and addressed the rationale behind the school board's decision to remove the trees. He cited additional expenses that will be added to the project cost if the district delays in beginning the renovation, as well as safety concerns and increased maintenance costs.

"The resolution that you're considering ... basically says that inequities in physical facilities are OK," he told the council. "You would be voting against the community. Are you willing to pay for increased expenses to the project that would come with leaving the trees?"

Perry said that a delay could mean the loss of state bond funding for its $10 million renovation project. Delays, he said, could also cost the school district up to a million dollars extra--money that would have to come out of the SUSD general fund.
Steve Enders

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