Centennial tree didn't see Turlock's birthday

TURLOCK -- What a better way to usher in the city's centennial year than by ... cutting down the centennial tree.

Local history buffs are upset after learning of the November axing of a giant sequoia near the Police Department. The tree was planted in 1972 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city's founding. A time capsule was buried under the tree, marked with a bronze plaque.

"I don't know what you have to do to make city people recognize what's important," said Thea Harris, member of the Turlock Historical Society. "The fact that they don't make efforts to preserve anything is very unfortunate."

Harris fought, and lost, to save the old Fire Station No. 1, which is slated for demolition this spring.

Police Chief Gary Hampton, Municipal Services Director Dan Madden and Parks and Recreation Director Rick Harden said the centennial tree was 75 percent gone and presented a safety hazard.

"That tree has been in decline for 17 years," said Harden, who made the call to cut it down. "We already had some big limbs fall."

Planted in a field beside the Police Department, the building grew around the tree. In the 1990s, the parking lot was expanded and much of the area was paved. Soil sterilant or poison to prevent grass and weeds to grow under the concrete was spread, much of it over the tree roots, Harden said.

Police were concerned the tree would fall into the building or communications tower. Turlock handles the emergency radio and 911 systems for California State University, Stanislaus, as well as Ceres and Gustine.

"There was a real concern with the emergency communications infrastructure that close," Hampton said.

Harris doesn't buy it.

"Did they call an arborist? Did they send away samples? I can think of 10 or 20 things to try before resorting to cutting it down," she said. "A young tree that's 6 feet tall doesn't have any maintenance costs. The bigger trees take a little time and cost to keep healthy, to prune."

No arborist was called. Staff made the decision based on safety, Harden said.

City employee DJ Fransen, who ran for mayor, runs the Web site turlockcitynews.com and hosts a local radio program, wielded the chain saw. He said a crowd gathered to watch the big tree fall. Fransen, who's also on the centennial committee and vocal about preserving city history, was ribbed "for being the guy to kill it," he said.

"But, hey," he said, "out here I'm the low man on the totem pole. I did ask them, though, if they were sure about it."

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the city's incorporation. More than $160,000 has been dedicated to a yearlong calendar of events, including a $70,000 statue of city founder John Mitchell. A time capsule in Central Park in downtown buried 50 years ago will be dug up, but the time capsule near the tree stump and police station won't be touched until 2022, 50 years after it was planted, centennial committee co-chairman Rob Santos said.

"I wish there was some discussion before they just cut it down," Santos said of the tree. "I don't fault the decision -- I'm sure it was a sick tree -- I just wish there was some discussion beforehand."

The time capsule, Hampton said, will remain buried near the bronze plaque that now commemorates at tree that isn't there.

"It looks like a cemetery marker," Harris said.

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.