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A 20-year-old gingerbread house still retains the faint scent of holiday spices. 

A Napa school's beloved oak tree comes to the end of the line

It’s been the site of countless school gatherings, classroom lessons, graduations, the starts of childhood crushes and even one wedding.

The iconic Valley Oak tree at the back of Alta Heights Elementary School has stood longer than the school itself, but the tree’s life span is about to come to an end.

The tree is dying, said school principal Kirsten Gerhardt.

“Everybody loves the tree,” she said. “It’s the centerpiece for many of our celebrations.” However, “It was deemed a hazard” by the school district, Gerhardt said. “Student safety is our main concern.”

“This is a tree we’ve been monitoring actively for several years,” said Mike Pearson, executive director of facilities maintenance and operations at the Napa Valley Unified School District.

According to an arborist who studied the tree, it’s at 80 percent of its life expectancy. While the roots and truck appear to be in good health, “It’s the limbs that are the issue,” said Pearson.

The tree is about 51 feet tall with a canopy 90 to 95 feet in diameter. If it were to remain, the school district would have to create a secured area around the tree as large as 150 feet to prevent any falling branches from injuring anyone. That would take up almost the entire school field.

“It’s a tough one,” Pearson admitted. “It’s a majestic tree that’s been there forever.” In fact, his own children went to Alta Heights, located at 15 Montecito Blvd. in east Napa.

“But the safety of our students, staff and community is paramount,” he said. “Removal is probably the best thing to do.’”

The tree will be removed as soon as this winter break.

“Our students are quite sad,” said Principal Gerhardt. “A couple of them decided to make a tree memorial, which is sweet.”

A few items have been placed under the tree such as a poem, a note, a picture and a glass jar with a bow on it.

The oak tree is also dear to others connected to the school. Bert Dekker taught at Alta Heights school for 25 years – from 1992 to 2017.

“I used to teach in a room that looked over the playground area,” he said. “I could see the tree. It felt like a big protector of these little kids.”

Kids would collect acorns from the trees or play around its trunk.

Dekker met his wife, now Lorna Dekker, at the same school. “When it came time to get married” almost eight years ago, Dekker decided “we ought to get married under the old oak tree.” And they did.

“It was great fun,” said Dekker. Judge Ray Guadagni married the two, he noted.

Dekker is retired but still substitute teaches at Alta Heights. He was at the school when Gerhardt told him the bad news.

“I just put my head on the desk and said, ‘Oh my goodness,’” said Dekker. He knew the tree had been in bad health, “but you don’t want limbs falling down on kids. It’s got to come down.”

If that tree could talk, what a story it would tell, he said.

Generations of Alta Heights kids have played around that tree or sat under it, he said, plus those who lived on the land before that.

If he could choose what to plant in its place, Dekker suggested planting new oak trees from acorns from the original tree. “And the community could grow as the tree grows.”

Kathy Martin was the principal at Alta Heights from 1982 to 1997.

“I call it my Camelot years,” said Martin. The staff, students and the school were very special, “and the tree was the hub around which the school revolved.”

At that time, the school did not have an all-purpose room, “but we had the tree and that’s where we met,” she said.

“All of our class pictures were taken under the tree, promotion activities were always held under the ‘giant oak’ along with reward assemblies and recognition programs.”

“I am saddened by another chapter of Napa history coming to an end,” she said.

Gerhardt said the old oak tree will be commemorated in one specific way. Each year when the students go to an outdoor education program, they wear a slice of a tree branch called a “tree cookie” as a name tag. Her father is going to slice a few hundred “tree cookies” from the oak tree branches, she said.

“We’ll make some extras for those who are sentimental about the tree.”

Pearson said the wood from the tree could be offered to local school woodshop programs as well.

A new tree will be planted in its place “as fast growing as it can be,” said Pearson.

Register file photo 

Hundreds of volunteers worked two assembly lines during the 11th annual "Operation: With Love From Home" in December 2017, packing 1,200 packages to send from Napa to military members in 243 different locations. 

St. Helena City Council votes for rent stabilization at Vineyard Valley

ST. HELENA — Over strong objections from the owners of Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park, the St. Helena City Council voted 3-2 earlier this month in favor of an ordinance that would cap rent increases for some of the park’s residents.

Councilmembers Paul Dohring, Geoff Ellsworth and Mary Koberstein voted for the new rent stabilization ordinance, with Mayor Alan Galbraith and Councilmember Peter White voting against it. The ordinance will undergo a few modifications before coming back to the council for final adoption.

If enacted, annual rent increases at the 55-and-over park would be capped at 3 percent over the previous rate or 100 percent of the percent change in the CPI, whichever is less. Larger increases could be permitted through meetings with residents, mediation and arbitration.

The cap would apply only to residents who opt into rent stabilization by choosing a short-term lease of one year or less. Residents who select a long-term lease would not be subject to rent stabilization.

The city would pay all administrative fees until 50 percent of the park’s leaseholders opt into rent stabilization.

A Nov. 2 letter from the park’s attorney Anthony Rodriguez raised the prospect of a lawsuit and the potential closure of the park if the city enacts the ordinance, which he said would “destroy” the park’s business plan.

“Unless the parkowner is willing to simply accept the diminution of its yearly profit and a significant reduction in the fair market value of its property, the proposed ordinance is certain to result in years of costly, time consuming and unwanted litigation for the City, the parkowner and the tenants,” Rodriguez wrote.

The ordinance would leave the park “little chance of earning a profit in excess of the amount it earned in 2017, thereby creating a disincentive to stay in business,” Rodriguez wrote.

Instead of rent stabilization, Rodriguez proposed either a city-sponsored rent subsidy program or a rent credit program run by the park.

City Attorney Tom Brown and his associate Deepa Sharma told the council that Rodriguez’s claims lack legal merit based on previous court rulings, and said they are confident the ordinance would withstand a legal challenge.

Greg Reynolds, managing partner for the park’s ownership group, said the majority of park residents oppose rent stabilization. He told the council he currently has no plans to sell or change the use of the park, but if the ordinance passes, “you will kill us over time.”

“We would have no choice other than to begin exploring alternatives,” Reynolds said.

Councilmember Geoff Ellsworth said he supports the ordinance, but wants to revisit in one year to see how it’s working out. He said he was also willing to consider other solutions like subsidies and credits.

“We want to work with the ownership to make sure that this gives them a fair rate of return,” he said.

Councilmember Paul Dohring said he’d seen how rent stabilization benefited residents of Calistoga’s mobile home parks, and he wanted St. Helena to at least give it a two-year trial run.

“If this thing is going off the rails … we are committed to looking at it and making it right for you and the park so that the rents are stabilized and you enjoy a fair return,” he told the owners.

Councilmember Mary Koberstein said the ordinance is about more than just Vineyard Valley. It’s part of the city’s broader goal “to stabilize, maintain and improve access to housing for the whole city,” she said.

Koberstein suggested a few changes to the ordinance, including to the vacancy control provision that allows the owner to increase rents to market rate under some circumstances when a space changes hands.

She also proposed increasing the rent cap from 75 percent of the percent change in CPI to 100 percent. The other two councilmembers who were in favor of the ordinance agreed.

Galbraith and White continued to oppose the ordinance.

“Most people in the park are happy with it the way it is,” White said.