June 7, 2021

Vancouver Cutting Trees for Quicker Development Processes, Axing Tree Retention for Development Expediency?


Take a step back into 1996, twenty-five years ago. It was exactly this time of year when the City of Vancouver first produced a Private Property Tree Bylaw to stop the clear cutting of residential lots before redevelopment. Huge canopies of trees were lost, and penalties were minimal, about $500 per tree. With the approval of the tree bylaw, all trees over 20 centimeters (roughly 8 inches in diameter)had to be retained unless they were clearly in the way of a new development, or were dead, diseased or dying. As well residents could pay a small fee and cut down a tree on their lot once annually for a ten dollar fee.

The one tree a year removal was rescinded in 2014, requiring everyone that wanted to chop trees that were over eight inches in diameter only to be allowed to do so if the tree was dead, diseased or dying.

In the first eight months of the 1996 tree bylaw, 1,200 trees were chopped down in Vancouver. Half were taken down on redeveloping properties, the other half by private property owners. The count was confirmed by a “stump count”from the front and rear property lines.

In a survey undertaken in 1996, over 94 percent of residents surveyed agreed with the restrictions to halt tree cutting on private property.

But zoom forward to 2021, and despite endless studies showing the importance of tree canopy and tree retention to mitigating heat sinks, providing shading canopies, mitigating climate change, reports showing the importance of proximity to nature for citizens and the biodiversity of wildlife that comes trees, the City of Vancouver planning department  is proposing to allow any lot with trees under 30 centimeter diameter (12 inch)  to be cut down as a one year “trial”.  Why? For a cost cutting measure. You can’t make this stuff up.

In a report going to Council this week, former manager Jessie Adcock (who is now taking a vice-president position at Finning) is advocating nixing trees under 30 centimeter diameters (12 inch) to “enable faster processing of development permit applications and reduce further growth of backlogs”. 

But this is smoke and mirrors-the landscape review function has never been a time issue, and is simply looped into the development review. In fact it was so efficient that there was no time accounting for that function of the permit until recently, so it’s hard to even objectively evaluate that it is a challenge. It’s not.  It may have  been used as a reason for a slower permit issuance by overworked, overwhelmed  permit review staff desperately needing clear decision making leadership and more staff resources.

And indeed if it was an issue (which despite what you may be hearing, it is not) simply hire more staff to get the job done quicker.  Don’t axe the urban forest. Help it.

The bottom line is of course really about the tree. You cannot compare the DBH or “diameter at breast height” of  trees across different municipalities like Seattle and Victoria and choose their guidelines as Vancouver’s. Vancouver has a unique climate in being very wet in winter and very dry in summer, meaning a tree here will be more stressed than a tree in a more salubriously moderated climate, and will not grow as wide as quickly as elsewhere.

And trees are not created equal-a dogwood tree can be twelve to fifteen years old and may still have not reached a caliper size that it would be protected. Each tree species is different in mature trunk size.

There is also the assumption that every tree assessment costs the applicant $2,000 for a private arborist’s review.  It does not. It depends on the depth of the report and the significance of the site.

Sadly these tree assessments are also not linked to oil tank permit removals, which go to the Fire Department. There’s a separate review where permits are issued for contractors to dig up oil tanks which of course can also impact the roots of surrounding trees on the property. If anything the tree permit should be revamped to include this process with the fire department, not hack away at the tree root structure that have been retained or replanted in the few decades this tree bylaw has been in force.

The concept of sacrificing trees on private property for expediency and efficiency is just plain wrong, and completely opposite to valuing an amenity that every citizen can enjoy. Axing trees will not improve any efficiency in processes, but points out how the goals and objectives of creating a city  for future generations is getting sawed off to catering to immediate developer pressure now. And now that any tree that is not a 30 centimeter diameter is not a tree, watch for a lot more “legal” private property clear cutting.

It is much the same as Council’s confounding decision to allow the placement of electric vehicle cord conduits across city sidewalks for their “green” support of electric vehicles, while impairing and impacting the most vulnerable citizens, those using the sidewalks as their basic mode of transportation. The liability and perception of this to every other city in Canada appears moot to Council.

Just like the decision to allow the destruction of trees with under a 30 centimeter diameter it is all about optics, who the voter base is, and making gestures towards re-election.

This move allowing the decimation of tree canopy flies in the face of the purported “Greenest City” initiatives and fails future generations of citizens.

Images:S.James Dengarden

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  1. Typical – on the one hand the city itself is proposing this chainsaw free-for-all for the benefit of developers in multi-family zones – while the poor person applying for anything in SFR zones is delayed endlessly by the ‘helpful’ Landscape plan checkers that recently joined the ‘team’ in the Building Review branch.
    They deny, delay, and have the applicant purchase multiple arborist reports and surveys -it’s a game of chicken that only deep pocketed and patient applicants can afford to pay if they want their Building Permit.

  2. Google “Shaughnessy early days photo” and you will see Vancouver before we decided that the city “tree canopy” was the lungs of the planet. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are trees; I’ve probably planted more than 1,000 myself. But we live in a province of roughly 235 million acres of trees. So those ten mangled overgrown trees on that 33 x 120 lot next to me in Kitsilano — half of which are a hedge gone wild from decades of non-maintenance by the absentee landlord and became uncuttable treasures in the 2014 tree bylaw — are not saving the planet.

    Now, the brilliance of the Vancouver zoning bylaw is that it incorporates discretionary measures. But the stupidity of the 2014 tree bylaw is that it did not. And if there ever was something that needed discretion it is the preservation of trees. Here is an example: down the street is a house built twenty years ago; for privacy, the developer planted a row of 10′ trees down the entire property line. Those trees are now 40′ tall and the bottom branches are about 8′ up, so no privacy but 40′ of shade on the neighbour’s entire back yard. And they’re 9″ in diameter. Are they the lungs of the neighbourhood or are they a blight on the neighbour? Should they have been planted in the first place and if not, who should have said so? And now that the property has a different owner who wants to cut the trees down and plant something more appropriate, should they be prevented or should reason prevail and should someone at city hall have the power to exercise discretion? Without discretionary powers, the new 12″ bylaw just ensures that there will be a run on the cutting of trees under 12″ so that at least they can’t grow big enough to be uncuttable.

  3. There is a lot that needs to be rethought with the COV tree By law.

    And I am happy to share this long long list of issues with anyone whom is interested. I would add, every arbourest I’ve spoken to agree with this assertion.

    I say this as someone whom in favour of increasing the COV tree canopy in Vancouver


    The COV tree by law has been a poorly thought through initiative .

    It is a blunt instrument that does little but cause delays and expenses. I would argue long term, if left as is, would actually work against its intended out come.

    The article states

    “In fact it was so efficient that there was no time accounting for that function of the permit until recently, so it’s hard to even objectively evaluate that it is a challenge. ”

    In my significant experience as a residential builder this statement below is categorically incorrect. Landscape reveiw for years have alway been obliques and at time onerous. The introduction of the current tree bylaw compounded this challenge expodential.

    The bylaw as it enforced does little to preserve trees on residential property when it in conflict with creation of housing.

    However the time and expense incurred by homeowners to go through the process is significant. This effort and expense would be much better directed towards requirements of bigger and better spices of replacement trees along side a more aggressive city wide planting program.

    What is proposed in the vote going to council tomorrow is just a much needed pauses and easing off the ever increasing burdens which has clogged a regulatory system and turned into a prohibitive quagmire.