Wednesday, October 17, 2007

If a tree falls in London and no one is around to issue a permit, does it receive a fine?

London's planning committee unanimously recommended a new tree conservation bylaw to council on Monday that will, among other sundry items, increase fees for obtaining permits to cut trees on designated Environmental Protection Areas and fines for contraventions of or non-compliance with the bylaw's provisions. The bylaw will also remove exemptions for cutting "dead and/or damaged trees" without a permit and make council's decisions on appeal "final," removing the right of private parties to make further appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board. The recommendation makes committee member Coun. Joni Baechler "happy," which really is all the reason we need the bylaw.

Controller Gord Hume, another committee member, democratically categorizes private property owners into minority and majority classes, the first owning woodlots of four acres or greater affected by the bylaw, and the second whose consent is axiomatic if not automatic as well: "This bylaw doesn't affect the average homeowner in, say, Old North." Nice… and broadly as true if council acts on another committee recommendation for a "bylaw expansion possibility" to allow the city to "map and protect" lots as small as half an acre as well.

A giant step for tree protection, but not enough for some committee members including Baechler and Coun. Judy Bryant who would like to restrict removal of all other trees in London including even ordinary backyard trees, recommending to council that it request staff to "prepare a report on the steps needed for a bylaw that would govern trees cut by a homeowner," although staff had already examined the idea in preparing the current proposed bylaw and concluded that the city was not "in a position" to enact it. In fact, an excellent summary of the political pros and cons of such a move is already provided in the staff report (PDF) that the planning committee reviewed and passed on Monday, so what will another staff report accomplish? As Bryant notes, similar bylaws in other Ontario cities have withstood "the test of time," meaning legal challenges and the consent of homeowners, so that either council wants to do it or not. As with other properties covered by the proposed bylaw, homeowners would have to apply for a permit to cut down a tree, suffer inspection by a city officer, and pay a permit fee that stands now at $50 and that may or may not recoup the program's administration and implementation costs according to other cities' experiences. In any event, the idea puts short work to the concept of "owner" in the term "property owner." A couple in Vancouver I know have waited months for a second inspection of a diseased tree on their property after a first and very cursory inspection failed to detect the disease, leading them to consider clandestine sabotage of their own tree instead!

Apart from Baechler's and Bryant's happiness, why are proposed and hoped-for tree conservation bylaws necessary? The staff report cites the support of city initiatives including "increased property values and assessment" and, bizarrely, "reduced crime." Even if these communal benefits could be quantified — which they cannot — why should it be supposed that London residents do not already realize and manage these benefits for themselves and on their own? As city staff already note in their excellent and comprehensive Summary of Opposing Views, "residents do not often cut down trees without a good reason and overall they plant more trees than they cut." Staff also notes, properly, that such a bylaw would be "'insulting', implying that [residents] need to be educated on the benefits of trees, and that they can’t manage their own landscaping decisions or determine when a tree needs to be removed for legitimate reasons of safety or disease," and that it may prove to homeowners to be a disincentive to planting a tree, "in case they should need to remove it later. And for the timid at heart, former agricultural properties developed for residential and commercial uses are promptly planted with more trees than had existed before in their bucolic pre-urbanized states.

But the primary rationale of existing and contemplated policies is council's endorsement in 2005 of a strategy to reach a 30% forest cover in the city, an arbitrary target designed to protect the faux political pride of the Forest City's guardians but that fails to define to the public what constitutes forest cover or how it is measured. According to the city's measures, forest cover in London is now only 7.8 per cent, well behind other cities' claims! But by any ordinary standard, London is awash in trees, as homeowners raking up the leaves this fall know very well. Politicians like Baechler and Bryant endorse heavy-handed and aimless regulations as necessary because the city can exercise them. If it takes a broad interpretation of a mandate given by a minority of electoral votes and the city's authority to "provide any service or thing that the municipality considers necessary or desirable for the public," well then that's what they've got. Best of luck to the rest of us who, by legislative default, aren't provided with these powers for ourselves.

On the subject, reader Paul Merrifield sends us this email:

Dear London Fog,

If you have ever been up in one of London’s tall buildings and had a look at our forest city, lack of trees does not come to mind. Apparently a well-intentioned group of activists in London has convinced its citizens and the media that we have a shortage of trees. I know it’s hard to believe, but as well-intentioned and kind as these people are, they add to our culture of fear. Getting funding from governments and private interests is impossible these days without declaring a crisis. Brace yourselves for the real crisis when we get an ice storm with all of these additional trees that have been planted. All of a sudden then we have WAY TOO MANY TREES! London Hydro spends millions clearing trees from electrical lines every week of the year and has an entire department devoted to doing so. A shortage you say?

The group says that with sprawl we are losing our “forest cover”. What does one lose when one converts an empty field into homes, lawns, gardens and trees? Every new home that is built MUST have a tree put in front of it on the boulevard. It’s a bylaw. And if this isn’t silly enough, we won the prestigious Arboriculture Award For Urban Forestry last year and came in first the year before at the Communities In Bloom competition.

What about the little children who are told of the dangers and crisis concerning our city trees? Anxiety-laced impressionable children are not a foundation for a productive future.

Now I’m afraid,
Paul Merrifield


Anonymous said...

That was an excellent letter from Paul Merrifield. Oh so true.

My neighbour's tree was struck by lightening this summer, and last summer. This summer's strike had a big limb lying across the road. You know by looking at it the first heavy snow or ice storm, that tree is coming down, and blocking the roadway.

The city came out and did thier thing, marking the lawn as to where the wires are, and then left. They said they would be back....that was two months ago.

I know it doesn't cost the taxpayer any money when the trees come down, take out hydro to homes, and emergency vechicles are sent out.

I know this because you see them out every week around the hood doing this. Can't imagine the city passing that cost on to the taxpayer.

What I found so funny, was they did plant a maple out in front of my place. It was before I got here, and the thing is dead. I didn't kill it, it just died. I even watered it, and put a tree spike near it to give it a boast.

Anyway this young lady comes by, and she stops in front of the house and gets out of her car. She is walking around the little dead tree with a notepad. I goes over to her, and ask her what she is doing.

I thought she was going to start crying. She said with a pout, "you're tree is dead." I said "I know."

For some strange reason I went into a long explanation as to what I did to try and the save the tree. I told her I watered it every other day. Gave it two gallons, and put a tree spike six feet from it when I noticed in the spring it looked sickly.

She gave me one of those 'what the fuck?' looks that only the glowtaridan's can give you. Not quite asseritive, more dumb struck.

I might as well have told her I had a chainsaw in my closet, and I roamed the streets of London at night looking for unsuspectng trees.

She got huffy, well as huffy as a glowartardian can get. They turn a darker shade of green, and make that squeaking noise when they are upset. No blood in them. They never look overly healthy, proably from eating all those weeds, and forgoing a good steak dinner.

She then gave me the sermon from the mount. She told me she was ordering the tree be replaced, and for me to water it once a week, and only if it didn't rain in that weeek. Under no conditions was I to use tree spikes on baby trees.

I took it like a concerned citizen, thinking I am getting a new tree. I figure if they are going to waste taxpayer money on their silliness, I might as well get greased with an overpriced free tree.

I was thinking after officer Gloria Glowtard left, that I could do that job.

Does anyone know what a tree police officer makes?

Anonymous said...

In my city they seem to have also passed an ordinance protecting invasive shrubs and weeds growing on all city property and in road medians and sidewalk cracks. Hafta admit all that buckthorn and ragweed do make the place look greener, in a Chernobyl kind of way.

Reg said...

I thought the trees in London were made out of metal?

MapMaster said...

Only some, so far, but expansion of the metal tree program could solve all of our problems.