Fort Lauderdale to determine tree's fate

Developer wants to relocate historic rain tree to build apartments

Published On: Jan 30 2013 03:13:50 PM EST   Updated On: Jan 04 2013 11:00:00 PM EST
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -

It's an historic tree that is believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States, six stories high, nearly 20 feet around at its trunk, and with a canopy that's 127 feet wide.

But it may be no match for high-rise condo project planned on the land by the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale where it has lived for the last 80 years or so.

"Most people don't understand what it's like to be underneath it and look up and see that tree," said city watchdog-activist Cal Deal. "It's amazing."

Rather than incorporate the tree into his plan, developer Asi Cymbal wants to move the tree, which was planted in 1920s by Fort Lauderdale pioneers, to a nearby lot. His hired experts, including Fairchild Garden arborist Bob Brennan, say it can be moved safely. 

"We're really excited to create a world-class project here that's going to generate over 1,000 jobs, and create over $100 million in revenues for the county and the city," said Asi Cymbal, whose plan for the site includes three high-rise buildings and more than 1,000 apartments.

But a number of local arborists, including Fort Lauderdale's Thomas Chancey, believe the massive tree won't survive a move.

"Why do you feel the tree would not survived the move?" asked Local 10's Bob Norman.

"Species and size and condition on the ground," said Chancey, who owns Softscapes in Fort Lauderdale. "You might as well blow it up it’s so bad … that’s not a smart thing to do with something as historic as this is."

Chancey said he researched the feasibility of a move for the tree for a past owner of the site and came to the conclusion that it would be devastating for the tree.

"This is one of the most historic trees we have in the city," said Chancey. "I'm not telling him not to develop. I'm telling him to take advantage of this incredible thing you've got."

"This tree -- I am committed to you and everything in this room -- will survive," Cymbal said during a recent Broward County Commission meeting.

He has offered to put up a $1 million bond on the tree's life, meaning the money will go to the community if it doesn't survive the move.

"Why didn't you incorporate the tree into the design? Why didn't that happen?" Norman asked Cymbal.

"With the construction activity all around the tree, our leading experts suggested that the best place for the tree to thrive is to preserve it in a new park," he answered.

"You're saying the tree has a better chance to survive if it's moved than if it's not?" said Norman.

"I'm saying that location ensures the maximum sunlight and its ability to thrive for generations to come," replied Cymbal.

In December, Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs tried giving the tree historic status in the county. Numerous people on both sides of the issue showed up to talk, including Chancey and Cymbal. 

"I am not a guy who is going to have the karma of a vanquished 80-year-old tree following me around," Cymbal told the commission. "I don't see a distinction between people and trees and we are committed to all of that."

The measure failed with seven against and two (Jacobs and new Commissioner Marty Kiar) for giving the tree historic status and therefore giving the commission final say on whether it can be moved.

"The reason I come down on not supporting the motion is because the tree isn't going to be destroyed," said Commissioner Stacy Ritter. "It's just going to be moved."

The vote leaves the fate of the tree with the city, where it does have protected status and the commission will have to approve any move.

"We don't have any guarantees that it will survive the move and it will just be to big a loss to allow," said Deal.