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UA Construction Job Takes More Than A Little Bit Off The Top Of Long-Established Olive Trees.

HISTORY TOOK A beating on the UA campus recently, when a string of century-old olive trees were unceremoniously yanked from their longtime home on North Campus Drive.

In the process, the stately stand was also hacked, chopped, de-limbed and nearly desiccated, all to the tune of $18,000 in taxpayers' money.

Yep, that's 18-big, for a little job that reeks of rank amateurism by someone toting either a gangrenous green thumb or a penchant for garden-variety sadism.

That someone should be deeply ashamed. As deep, say, as the long roots of these ancient trees that were temporarily relocated to Helen Street and Highland Avenue as part of the massive, $56 million student union rebuilding project. Even though they're neatly tucked away for the present, a few folks have taken notice of the apparent malfeasance, in particular Chuck Raetzman, UA assistant director of Groundskeeping Services.

"There was apparently some miscommunication on this job," he says. "I think overall, the trees were pruned out a little more than normal."

Uh-huh. Sorta like Slobodan Milosevic is just a little bit ornery.

Fact is, these trees are a mess. A report obtained by The Weekly by a consulting arborist estimates the loss of value for just two of the trees at $22,667.

Raetzman cuts to the chase: After 100 years of providing shade and elegance on North Campus Drive, "the future of some of these trees is iffy," he says. "Right now, a couple of them are really flagging."

While most of the trees were removed under the gaze of groundskeepers, one was actually cut down before staffers were on site, he says.

That's not all. According to an anonymous caller close to the action, the entire job was done with patchy oversight and plenty of haste. For example, says the tipster, the first batch of eight or nine trees were dug up and readied for transport without being sprayed with moisture-maintaining glue. Others were almost moved without being properly boxed. And several worried memos hustled to UA Project Manager Chris Kraft were ignored, the source claims.

Not true, Kraft replies. "I've not received any memos from anyone saying (the terms of the contract) were breached. Yes, I think (the trees) could have been handled more gently," he says. But the abuse was limited to "minor scuffs, some cuts and trimming."

An examination of the trees proves otherwise. Now lining the breezy ramp of a busy pedestrian underpass, many of them have slash marks at their bases. Nearly all are missing at least a few branches, while some are downright ravaged.

Prompting this caveat: Despite discounting damage to the trees, Kraft says, "I think its fair to say that (legal action is possible)."

So who's to blame for mishandling these elegant beauties? At ground zero, it was D&T Tree and Cactus that did the actual work. You may know them as the same company that hurriedly denuded Amphitheater's troubled high school site on Naranja Road. In comparison, the UA job was like carting off a few Tinker Toys. Regardless, D&T owner Tim Widger didn't return several calls seeking comment.

In turn, Widger's firm was subcontracted for the campus job by construction titan Swinerton and Walberg, the same company erecting the federal courthouse downtown. Doug Huie is Swinerton's senior project manager for the student union renovation.

"We moved 17 trees total, and with the exception of the last two, all of them were done under direct UA supervision," he says. "With the last two, we had an opening in our schedule, and asked the university.... We got approval to do that."

He says those trees were shuffled just like all the rest -- using a huge spade to pluck them up. "Before you spade, you have to trim (a tree) back to get the spade around the root ball. But the guys who did it had practice and supervision on all the other ones. They were basically just mirroring that technique."

As for the trees being "mishandled and butchered" as alleged, "That's not true at all," Huie replies. "We moved these under the supervision of the university. We've received permission to move all of these.

"But for some reason, those last two seem to have triggered (Groundskeeping)," he says. "And I don't know if it's because they didn't have someone specifically available at eight in the morning, because they were out there later in the morning."

Still, Huie alludes to a niggling gap between what happened on North Drive, and what was supposed to happen. "I've offered to meet with the university and try to work this out," he says. "We're not a hard-nosed contractor at all. I like happy customers. The fact that things seem to have gone awry here, I'm not real happy about that."

Meanwhile, until they have that face-to-face sit-down, "All I hear is rumors," he says.

But one buzz he apparently hasn't heard: "I don't even know of any indication of legal action to be taken," Huie says.

Either way, after final judgment is rendered on the North Campus Drive hack job, a celestial court might then consider the UA's entire history-erasing, blade-for-grades juggernaut. Given the ruthless sacrifice of its once-lush mall to brick and mortar, the steady incursion into nearby neighborhoods, and a frenzied, ridiculously expensive building splurge across campus, it seems that a few old olive trees don't amount for squat in the big scheme of educational progress.

Higher learning, indeed.

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