Business community should counter tree protesters at Marina Lofts hearing

Reprinted from the South Florida Business Journal Monday, May 13, 2013.

A hearing on Tuesday should be a good time to put to death some of the misinformation surrounding plans to relocate a rain tree in Fort Lauderdale to make way for the Marina Lofts project.

The biggest misinformation is the tree can’t be successfully moved.

“No one thinks it can be done except for his arborist. His in pocket arborist says it can be done. It can’t be done,” Chris Brennan says in a video of a protest on the Broward-Palm Beach New Times website.

Brennan gained some measure of public attention when he left his job as a tour guide at Water Taxi, which is a tenant on the site where developer Asi Cymbal plans Marina Lofts. Cymbal contacted Water Taxi about a critical video Brennan did, but said he did not ask that he be let go. Nevertheless, Brennan became a minor cause célébre.

Hate to tell you Chris, but I’ve talked to two independent tree experts and they both say the move can be done. Moreover, Cymbal has assembled a top-notch team to carry out the project.

Nevertheless, there’s a ginned-up controversy that’s resulting in a special meeting of the Fort Lauderdale Planning and Zoning Board at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 100 N. Andrews Ave.

My concern is that activists who are not being factual will overshadow what could be a key project in Fort Lauderdale’s future. Members of the business community could balance that by turning out to support the project, which would help open up the waterfront on the south side of the New River and provide housing for young professionals.

As for moving the tree, here’s what my reporting found:

George Fitzpatrick, professor emeritus at the University of Florida told me, “If the person doing it knows what he’s doing, it’s not hard to do.”

Fitzpatrick gave examples of a champion oak that was transplanted into what is now called Huizenga Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale in the 1970s. The move involved use of a barge when there were fears the tree was too heavy for the bridges over the new river.

A champion mahogany tree in the 1400 block of East Broward Boulevard was moved subsequently when the Pavlik Design Team expanded.

“Oh no, you can’t move it,” was the outcry both times said Fitzpatrick, whose arboriculture course at UF from the mid-1980s to 2005 covered the topic of moving trees.

Both trees are thriving and going well, Fitzpatrick said.

Environmental Design, the Texas company hired by Cymbal to move the rain tree, is very well regarded in the industry, Fitzpatrick said.

Jeff Shimonski, a consulting arborist who works with Jungle Island, said he’s familiar with Environmental Design, and couldn’t imagine that it would be a problem to move the tree, which he has walked around.

Both Shimonski and Fitzpatrick said after-care is important, such as making sure the tree is properly irrigated. Both also said Bob Brennan, the arborist chosen by Cymbal is well respected and the right man for the job.

I interviewed Brennan and he took great exception to the other Brennan’s contention that he’s just a hired gun.

“I’m not asked for a positive opinion, but an opinion as to whether it’s possible,” he said.

Since he first met Cymbal, Bob Brennan said he’s insisted that there are a few people able to move trees like this safely. Paul Cox of Environmental Design is one that he recommended.

The process is fairly involved.

About six to nine months beforehand, efforts will be made to prepare the roots before transplanting. A device called an air knife will be used to blow dirt out of the way to look at the roots rather than damaging them by shoveling, he said.

About three to four tractor trailers will be used to deliver the equipment for the move, Bob Brennan said.

The transporter that will carry the tree will probably be a 32-wheeler built by the company that built the transporter for the Space Shuttle, he said. “Each wheel has its own motor and steering mechanism so it can stand perfectly still and turn in a circle,” he said.

The tree will be lifted out of the ground by four jacks that can lift a Boeing 757, he said.

There’s a 10-year plan to work with Cymbal not only for the rain tree but other trees on the property that will be moved, Bob Brennan said. “I’m not putting my name out there on a project that will fail.”

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