Harrison County

A dying Live oak could drop a branch and kill a child, but the city wants it saved.

The owner of a Gulfport preschool is warning parents not to park under or near a centuries-old Live oak because he fears a limb could fall and kill someone, but the city will not let him cut down the protected tree.

Two arborists have given written opinions to Matt Dickens, owner of Kid Academy on Pass Road, that say the tree is a hazard. Dickens hoped the city would allow him to cut down the tree so he could expand his preschool and after-school programs, which serve 174 children.

He had originally intended to keep the tree when he bought the adjacent lot in 2016.

Once Dickens decided to expand the popular preschool, commercial building designer Robert Heinrich inspected the property. Heinrich concluded the tree should come down because it appears to be in poor health, it will cause drainage problems and it will be too close to the new building.

But Gus Wesson, a landscape architect who heads beautification for the city, rejected Dicken’s request to remove the protected tree.

Arborist Eric Nolan examined the oak for Dickens and concluded Hurricane Katrina had damaged the tree in 2005. Its ability to flourish and recover was essentially destroyed when someone paved over most of the root system in May 2006, he said in a March letter to Dickens.

The pavement cut off the oak’s air and water supply. Removing the pavement, he said, would destroy the root area and further stress the tree.

“This tree is full of deadwood and is where the parents park when they pick up their children,” Nolan wrote. “This tree is a liability to the site now. There are a large number of dead branches in the crown that should be removed to make the tree less of a liability.”

The tree, he said, “is a hazard to the property.”

Nolan’s opinion in hand, Dickens appealed to the Planning Commission in June for permission to cut down the oak. The commission rejected his request, agreeing with Wesson that the tree should be preserved.

Wesson is not authorized to speak to the media. The Sun Herald on Thursday morning requested a copy of his written recommendation about the oak but has not yet received it.

At the city’s request, Dickens said he then brought in a risk-assessment arborist, Joe Loftus of Loftus Tree Service in Long Beach. Loftus said in a letter to Dickens: “Due to the lack of structural integrity, the likelihood of failure of this tree is high and the consequence of failure is severe (death, vehicles, building).

“So my recommendation is to remove the tree. This is a big liability issue for everyone involved with this tree.”

For now, the Planning Commission’s decision stands. Dickens is appealing the decision to the City Council, which will have final say.

“I guess the problem is, the city wants to preserve the tree,” Dickens said, “but they won’t say it’s safe and healthy.

“If the tree falls or kills someone, we’re talking about a tragedy. I’ve been told by not one but two experts that this tree is not safe.”

Dickens said he has so far spent more than $10,000 on the permit request, which includes legal, expert and city fees. If the council will not let him cut down the tree, he said, a court appeal will cost $40,000 or more.

He said he has been able to absorb expenses so far, but he wonders what happens to small-business owners who are unable to cover the costs of construction-permit appeals.

Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep parents and children away from the tree. Parents park near the tree because it is at the front of the vacant lot, right next to the preschool entrance.

Most of the school’s current parking is behind the long building because city code required rear parking when it was constructed. That code has since gone by the wayside.

On Thursday morning, one mother parked near the tree because the small front parking lot at Kid Academy was full.

“I know I’m not supposed to park here,” she said. As she hustled her son inside, she said she was running late for work in Biloxi and didn’t have time to wait for a parking space to open in front of the building.

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99