Hopes of local activists protesting tree removal at Ensign felled as NMUSD preps parking lot project

Residents watch as Newport Mesa Unified contractors remove Rosewood trees at Ensign Intermediate School on Monday.
Wyatt Robertson, black shirt, and his mom, Kim, right, along with Christine and Ashely Salem, far left, watch as Newport-Mesa Unified School District contractors tear down rosewood trees at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A group of residents and environmentalists tried to intercede Monday on behalf of 15 mature trees at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach slated to get the ax as part of a Newport-Mesa Unified School District campus improvement project.

Although the argument over whether to fell the trees to make way for a parking lot on the southern end of campus near Cliff Drive has been ongoing, neighbors with the nonprofit Still Protecting Our Newport (SPON) say the district’s sudden chopping Monday came just as the group was set to file an injunction to stop the work.

“The school district got wind of it and sent the contractor out today to start tearing up the trees,” SPON representative Charles Klobe said Monday afternoon as demonstrators maintained a presence outside the school.

In an attempt to spare the half-century-old trees, mostly tipuana tipu, from chainsaws and bulldozers, about 50 activists gathered on public property outside the school. Many remained at their posts for the better part of the day, as a small cadre of Newport Beach Police officers supervised the scene.

Among them was 24-year-old Wyatt Robertson, who works in San Francisco but grew up in a house directly across from the school and knows the trees well.

“The trees are in bloom and it’s beautiful,” he said of the area. “Every evening the swallows come and roost in the trees. It’s really pretty.”

Wyatt Robertson watches Newport Mesa Unified contractors remove trees at Ensign Intermediate School Monday.
Wyatt Robertson watches a crew of Newport-Mesa Unified School District contractors tear down rosewood trees at Ensign Intermediate School on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Neighbors and environmentalists anticipated the tree removal work would begin Friday and so had readied court documents to obtain a reprieve. But on Monday morning, the sound of heavy equipment drew neighbors from their houses.

Klobe said a citizens group worked with Newport city officials on an alternative plan that would spare the trees but that it wasn’t seriously considered by district officials.

Newport-Mesa Unified spokeswoman Annette Franco said the construction work was approved by board members during a May 29 meeting and was scheduled to begin after the end of the academic year, which concluded Friday.

Board members at that meeting made several concessions, including keeping a memorial tree in an entry plaza, agreeing to replace each felled tree with a new one somewhere on the property and plant new landscaping to screen the parking lot from homes on Cliff Drive.

“These modifications and improvements are designed to improve safety and traffic flow to/from our school and eliminate the need for off-campus parking, while maintaining an aesthetically pleasing and welcoming environment,” Franco said by email.

Newport Mesa Unified contractors tore down trees at Ensign Intermediate School on Monday.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District contractors tore down rosewood trees at Ensign Intermediate School on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The tree removal will accommodate the installation of a security fence, part of a larger two-school, $5-million security project that will also add parking and change the drop-off lane at the middle school campus. The work will be completed by the start of the 2020-21 school year, Franco said.

Ultimately, the demonstrators’ efforts weren’t successful, as only a few of the 15 trees were still standing when workers called it a day at around 6:30 p.m., Robertson said.

On Tuesday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Moss granted SPON a temporary restraining order to prevent the further removal of any trees that still remained on the Ensign school property. A rehearing is scheduled for Orange County Superior Court on Monday at 1:30 p.m.

The Newport Harbor High School alum said he was disheartened by the outcome but glad to see people had united on behalf of a worthy cause.

“I’m glad there are a bunch of people in the community standing up to this small group of power. I learned a lot of the community and public policy from the people here today,” he said. “But it’s sad seeing all the swallows flying around — there are just swallows flying everywhere with no place to land.”

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8:09 PM, Jun. 23, 2020: Updates with judge issuing temporary restraining order Tuesday stopping further cutting down of trees.