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Assassins are roaming downtown Provo.

They're not bumping off people. It's the trees they're after.The city planted 40 trees along the sidewalks on Center Street 15 years ago. The trees add ambience to the downtown shopping experience, said Linda Walton, director of the Association of Involved Merchants.

The linden trees were cute when they were little. Now, they're all grown up, and some merchants aren't so fond of them anymore.

"It is kind of like having children," Walton said. "They are darling babies, but they grow into teenagers and then you have different problems to deal with."

The trees - which can grow to 40 feet - block store signs, are full of bugs, weep sap if pruned at the wrong time and pose a hazard for store awnings.

"I can't even turn on the lights on my sign because the branches are around it and I worry about them getting hot and catching on fire," said Ted Schofield, co-owner of Heindselmans' Knit and Gift, 176 W. Center St. "They (the branches) are grabbing people as they come by.

"Customers have come in complaining their cars are full of goo and that they have aphids all over them," Schofield said.

Five years ago trees began dying, Walton said. Some died of poisoning. Some were mysteriously cut down.

"When the vandalism started last year, we asked the Police Department to investigate, but they couldn't find anything conclusive," said Raylene Ireland, administrative assistant to Mayor Joe Jenkins.

Business owners near the vandalized trees denied knowing what has happened to them, Ireland said. An ordinance prohibits vandalizing or removing the trees, which are city property.

Nevertheless, some trees have been debarked, which kills them. Others have vanished. In front of some stores, only a telltale stump remains.

The trees are worth between $400 and $1,000, says Frank Williams, a horticulturist at Brigham Young University and chairman of the city's Urban Forestry Board.

City officials had planted what they believed to be dwarf trees and agreed to keep them trimmed so they wouldn't impede store visibility. But the dwarfs have turned out to be giants and the city has been reluctant to trim them out of fear of harming the gangly trees.

Trimming them would create "lollipop trees," with long branches and a bushy, rounded top, Ireland said.

"I talked with the Urban Forestry Board, and they claim if you trim the trees it will kill them," Walton said.

Still, the trees need trimming "no matter what it does" to them, Walton said.

Ireland and Williams plan to evaluate each tree individually and work out a pruning plan with store owners.

"I want the trees," Schofield said. "I just want them taken care of."