A cutting election debate

By Matthew van Dongen
St. Catherine’s, ON (September 15, 2010)- The white oak tree is a 250-year-old example of a growing election debate over treecutting on private property. Barbara Large has tended her massive front-yard oak — the trunk is almost as wide as she is tall — for about 40 years.

Her neighbour, Mirella Colantoni, climbed as a child in the ancient branches that overhang her north end property. The beautiful tree recently spurred an ugly dispute, though, after Colantoni had five of those overhanging limbs cut down with an eye to protecting her roof and windows.
“We trimmed the branches that had us worried during storms. It’s just a matter of protecting our property, our home,” said Colantoni. “I don’t have anything against that tree — I love that tree.” Large, however, is “appalled” by the damage done to her beloved old tree, which she feels was unnecessary. “I’m afraid for its health now,” said the master gardener. “It’s such a rare old tree, it should be protected.”
The normally friendly neighbours are at loggerheads over the loss of limb — but they agree on at least one point. A city bylaw regulating treecutting on private property might have prevented the dispute. Large would like protection for particularly old trees, on public and private land: “I don’t want to see something like this happen again, here or anywhere,” she said. Colantoni, for her part, said a bylaw similar to that used in the City of Toronto would clearly spell out the responsibilities and rights of property owners.
Under that city’s rules, a permit is needed to remove or “injure” trees of a certain size unless they are dead, “imminently” hazardous or terminally diseased. “At least that way, it wouldn’t become personal,” she said. Other Ontario municipalities, like Guelph, Oakville and Mississauga, also restrict tree-cutting on private property, said city horticultural technician Mike Anderson.
St. Catharines’ proposed new urban forestry management plan suggests following in their footsteps, with rules to protect particularly big, historic or threatened trees. The details will be up to council to decide, he stressed. “But certainly in the bylaws that exist in other places, the intent is not to stop you from cutting down a 20-year-old tree to put in a pool or add an extension to your house,” he said. “Now if you want to cut down a 400-year-old tree for your pool, maybe there’s something to talk about.”
So far, the city has received close to 90 “mostly positive” submissions from residents on the proposed forestry management plan, Anderson said, but he added the debate over a potential bylaw “will probably be interesting.” Council won’t dive into the contentious debate until after the election — and if a tree falls during an election campaign, ward candidates will definitely hear it.
Several would-be councillors have already come out for and against the idea of a private property tree bylaw. We contacted St. Patrick’s ward candidates for their thoughts. Teacher Mat Siscoe has posted his opposition to the bylaw online, arguing homeowners deserve the right to make changes to their properties “with minimal interference from the city.” Landscaper Scott Duff made a similar point, arguing in favour of “more incentives and education” to increase tree canopy rather than a bylaw that “infringes on homeowners’ property rights.”
Robert George said he would take direction from ward residents on the issue, but believes personally in “the freedom of property owners to keep care of their yards as they see fit.” Incumbent Mark Elliott, who advocated for the urban forestry plan, said any bylaw will have to reach a balance between property rights and community benefi t. “I do believe that, in the case of heritage trees and endangered species, it is in the community’s interest for preservation,” he said.
John Bacher is in favour of the principle of more tree protection, but added it should be the last thing the city enacts from the proposed management plan. “We’d look pretty silly regulating trees on private property before we committed to getting more trees on city boulevards, for example,” he said.
Related Resource:
The Standard- A cutting election debate