School faces dilemma: Trees or parking?

Renee Gamela and Rebecca Wolf

The wooded area bordering Hugh R. Jones Elementary School in South Utica could be scaled back to balance safety and parking needs. 

Changes could take place if voters approve a proposed $170 million district-wide capital project the board approved earlier this week. The project's architects have been working to finalize the numbers, and so far have added $14 million to the original $156 million estimate. Architects have created three options for parking changes, district Superintendent Marilyn Skermont said. 

“We do have some need for parking, but we do not have any intention of cutting down all these trees,” Skermont said Friday morning outside the school during a tree-planting ceremony. 

Elected officials planted an evergreen tree on the Jones campus in honor of Arbor Day Friday. Mayor David Roefaro gave four trees to the school that were donated this winter for his inaugural charity ball to benefit the Utica Public Library. 

The evergreen tree was planted on the northeast corner of the school grounds, which is where the district could be putting in the additional parking spaces. It also is the same area where residents say just last week three trees were cut down because school officials said they were dying or diseased. Another six also have been cut during the past several years for the same reason. 

Dave George, who has lived across the street from the wooded area for 31 years, said he did not want to see the trees cut down. He said whatever the district does in the area, “they need to make sure it's aesthetically pleasing.” 

George and his wife, Janet, said they were upset when they first heard about the plans, but after Skermont visited with them and explained the plans, they felt more comfortable. 

“They do need to make it safer for the kids,” Janet George said. 

Neighborhood resident Jack Van Auken said he didn't want to see any more trees lost. 

“It would be a shame to lose it, but they do need to do something about parking,” he said. 

Roefaro said he doesn't believe the wooded area should be diminished. 

“It's a residential area here, and with all the trees, it has a nice ambiance,” the mayor said. “It'd be a shame” to take the park area away and replace it with a parking lot, he said. 

Skermont said the district does plan to plant more trees in the area, but will wait until after the capital project vote in June to do so. “We don't want to plant trees just to have to move them for the parking lot,” Skermont said. 

Of the three options for expanding the parking lot, residents said they prefer the option that would keep more of the wooded area facing the street, and the parking lot abutting the school building. 

Skermont said that is the favored plan, but added the plans are just concepts. 

“Once we get the capital project plan passed, then we will meet with the community and discuss different ideas,” she said. “We will have landscape architects edifying each site.”