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Arborist finds problems at Safety Harbor school

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


SAFETY HARBOR -- An arborist has determined three hazardous trees on the parklike campus of Safety Harbor Elementary School need to be removed and dozens of others around the playground, walkways and courtyard need immediate attention.

The May 25 report by Clearwater arborist Loren Westenberger identifies 52 trees -- including laurel and live oaks, camphors, a chinaberry and a cabbage palm -- that are distressed.

photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Safety Harbor Elementary School students walk near a laurel oak at the school. An arborist says the tree is hazardous and should be removed.
Some need dead or decayed limbs pruned while others need fertilizer, vitamins or hormones, according to the report. And the three trees that should be removed are severely decayed. One of those three, a chinaberry, produces a poisonous berry that can be lethal to humans, according to a horticulturalist at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension.

Westenberger inspected the campus free of charge after being asked by a member of the school's Parent Teacher Association. He estimated the work would cost $22,965.

"They're in bad shape," Westenberger said. "Most of the danger is from dead wood falling in high traffic areas -- walkways, playgrounds, parking areas -- and on a school, it's pretty much the whole site."

The Pinellas County school system does not have a certified arborist on staff, said Area I maintenance supervisor Connie Barsky, who read the report Tuesday. He said the district will pay to have the campus reinspected by another arborist, and the work will be done by one of the county's contractors if needed.

"If it's verifiable, we'll have it all done," Barsky said. "These apparently are all within an area where there's people all the time. That's why I'm concerned about it."

The issue of the health of the trees came up in early May when the PTA was discussing campus beautification, said president Kathy Frid, who has a first-grade son at the school. There was concern about one tree in particular, a laurel oak near the bus driveway that has had problems with termites.

Frid said at times the tree has been swarming with termites when children are passing by.

"They're like all over the place," she said. "At the time when they're swarming, they're actually on the bottom of the tree and as soon as the kids go by they start flying. Then they just fly all around in the air. Not pretty."

Westenberger estimated the tree is 50 to 75 years old. The life span of a laurel oak is 65 to 80 years. The tree is filled with large cavities where termites have eaten away at the trunk.

Trees that attract termites have usually started dying years before, said Bob Albanese, a horticulturalist at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension. The insect infestation is actually a natural part of the death of a tree, he said.

"Insects are a secondary problem," Albanese said. "They are evidence something else is wrong."

All of the district's campuses have an annual safety inspection of buildings and grounds, said Barsky, although he didn't know when Safety Harbor Elementary was last inspected.

Work crews routinely mow the lawn and do minor tree trimming at the schools but the county hires contractors for major limb or tree removal when problems are pointed out. Barsky said he was at Safety Harbor Elementary looking at some of the trees within the last four months.

"I didn't notice anything to get excited about," he said. "A lot of those branches hang over the sidewalks, so I'm constantly looking at them."

Principal John Day said he hopes the district will replace those trees that need to come out. That includes the laurel oak with the termites and a second decaying laurel oak in the south courtyard that hangs over picnic tables. The third tree is a chinaberry, a non-native tree that Westenberger identified as high risk for structural failure.

Besides the structural integrity, the chinaberry should be removed because its berries are poisonous, said Albanese of the Cooperative Extension. He cited a University of Florida publication that reported a young girl in India died after eating six to eight ripe chinaberries, which are about the size of a maraschino cherry, Albanese said.

"It probably shouldn't be in a school yard," Albanese said.

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