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The one tree a year removal was rescinded in 2014, requiring everyone that wanted to chop trees that were over eight inches in diameter only to be allowed to do so if the tree was dead, diseased or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