Firm Leaves Little to Chance in Uprooting Ancient Oak

By Richard Fausset
Times Staff Writer

October 21, 2003

The Santa Clarita Valley oak that gained national attention last year when an activist camped out in its branches will probably be moved to a nearby plot by mid-January, a developer said Monday.

Representatives for John Laing Homes, which is responsible for moving the 800,000-pound tree, demonstrated for the first time Monday the expensive and complicated steps being taken to ensure its survival, including plans to construct a 128-wheel trailer under the tree's root system, and a five-year maintenance plan once it's relocated.

But environmentalists who rallied to save the ancient oak last year and who are locked in a legal battle with the developer say they are still concerned that the tree will die if moved.

"The best thing for the tree's survival is for it to stay where it is," said John Quigley, the environmental educator who climbed into the oak last Nov. 1 to prevent it from being cut down.

The destruction of "Old Glory," as the tree is known to neighbors, was originally planned to make room for a road-widening project, an improvement the developer has to make to satisfy county requirements for a nearby housing development.

But Laing officials decided to move the tree to a nearby site after Quigley's protest drew throngs of supporters from locals who remembered picnics in the shade of the tree to strangers worried about the pace of development in Los Angeles County.

Preparations for the move began shortly after a judge in January ordered Quigley to leave the tree. But the move was delayed when arborists noticed the tree had begun to show buds, a sign that it was coming out of its winter dormancy, the safest time to move it.

As a result, the oak has stayed put for nearly a year, surrounded by fencing and security guards, its massive root system partially contained by the sides of a 32-foot wooden box.

Now, however, winter is returning and the tree's leaves are starting to turn. Bill Rattazzi, president of Laing's L.A./Ventura division, said the final preparations for the move could begin within a month.

Landscape architect Lee Newman, who is coordinating the project, said that the 50-foot tree is the largest he has tried to move in his 30-year career, but he's confident the plan will work.

Once the tree is in winter "hibernation," he said, workers will burrow a series of tunnels under its root system. Wooden "ceilings" will be built for the tunnels, which will eventually become the bottom of the giant box. Then a series of computer-calibrated jacks will hoist the tree 7 feet, allowing the trailer to be built underneath.

A tractor used to haul large industrial equipment for nuclear plants and factories will eventually transport the tree about an eighth of a mile down Pico Canyon Road to an 18-acre preserve, where Laing is planting 170 oaks.

"What we're doing here is over and above anything we've done before," Newman said.

Thus far, delays have pushed the cost of moving the tree from $250,000 to more than $1 million a price tag that includes security and attorney's fees.

Public relations specialists plan to set up a Web site today http://www.picocanyonoaktree.com to explain the move to the community, Rattazzi said.

"We are going to be transparent, honest and upfront about everything this year," Rattazzi said. "It was not pleasant last year, for anyone."

But some issues remain to be resolved in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, which invited Quigley to camp out in the tree last year, has filed a civil lawsuit against Laing, alleging fraud, unfair business practices and breach of contract.

In court documents, the group contends that the developer promised in late 1999 to save the tree by redesigning its housing development and realigning the road.

Rattazzi, who declined to comment on ongoing litigation, would say only that Laing "did not break any promise to anybody" over the tree.

In a countersuit, Laing has filed a civil trespassing claim against Quigley, seeking unspecified damages.

A judge refused to dismiss the claim in April, and a trial covering both the trespassing and fraud claims is set for Dec. 10.

Quigley said he has tried to avoid the limelight since leaving the tree in January. But he said he has planned a reunion of his supporters near Old Glory on Nov. 1, the date he first clambered into its branches.