It seemed kind of strange at the time. You would think during a climate emergency and the need to speed up municipal approval processes for housing at the City of Vancouver that there might be more staff trained to assist. But no, the City took a different view, corner cutting the existing urban forest to make it appear that permits were being processed faster.
In 2021, City of Vancouver Council approved the cutting down of trees on private property that were below 30 centimeters (12 inches) in diameter. Previously trees that were above 20 centimeters were protected from being cut down without an arborist’s report. It was to be for a one year time period, with a review back this month.
You can take a quick look at social media and see that many local developers are saying that the time line for approval of their projects has really not improved. Gordon Price had written earlier this spring that for single-family, duplex, and laneway homes, delays have been reduced by 75%, leading to a 300% increase in applications processed.
But the other side of this was revealed by insider Adrien Olmsted who pointed out that there had been no training or new hiring at city hall, but just a clipping of processes by allowing trees between 20 to 30 centimeters to be cut down on private property with no permit.
Adrien Olmsted says to look at HOW these applications could have been so speedily processed. They point out that for expediency we are losing the entire plot, and the urban forest is being erased. As Olmsted points out, the City has hired no new staff. But the City has cut out significant processes, without looking at the sustainability cost.
The city “task force” that allowed the temporary tree bylaw change had estimated that only 200 trees a year would be removed from the urban forest.
They were wrong.
In the first six months of 2021 400 trees had been cut down, suggesting that the City was losing 800 trees a year on private property, four times more than estimated.
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.
You can take a look a the report here that was written by former planning manager Jessie Adcock who left city hall and now works for Finning.
And you can also take a look at this report going up to Council this week that is now recommending that Council roll back on the free for all destruction of the urban forest that is below 30 cm caliper on private property. This report recommends that City Council now once again protect trees that have a diameter of over 20 centimeter instead of the one year “pilot” allowing trees up to 30 cm to be chopped without a permit.
This new report lays out that there was a “trade-off” between the City’s urban forest and reducing processing times. But staff never factored in that while 240 additional trees were removed in the development permit stream without a permit, it appears another 400 were taken out not because of a development permit, but because property owners wanted to get rid of them.
As the report states: ” Staff conclude that this change has had a positive impact on time spent on landscape reviews and has helped achieve a reduction in permit review times in the face of a glut of development permit applications. In essence, this change has served as a valve to release pressure on staff that are spread thin. In addition, conversations with the development industry have generally revealed support for this amendment. Conversely, these changes have resulted in tree canopy cover loss…approximately 400 trees (20 – 30 cm) may have been removed on private property at the owner’s discretion. Further, staff view that these changes have had some negative impacts to operations including an increase in the number and severity of complaints.”
Sadly the Council report asks Council to agree “in principle” to the reinstatement of the bylaw to prohibit tree cutting under 30 cm. caliper. That means that the bylaw will be stickballed back to the law department for enactment, which may be many months away. And that also means that those private property trees can continue to be cut, without permits or repercussions, other than the neighbourhood complaints the City is receiving.
This move allowed the discretion of private property owners to cut their trees down is contrary to the “Greenest City” initiatives and given the importance of trees to the urban canopy and last year’s heat dome, fails future generations of citizens. We have to do better. We need to close this loophole now.