Home­own­ers can be trusted with their own trees

The Peterborough Examiner - - OPINION -

Dur­ing a two-week blitz this month five pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion meet­ings will hear what peo­ple think about reg­u­lat­ing what they can and can’t do with trees on their prop­erty.

At the risk of sound­ing too know-it-all or dis­miss­ing the need for City Hall to lis­ten to home­own­ers, we can safely say what the out­come of those ses­sions should be: dra­mat­i­cally scale back the tree by­law that was pushed through city coun­cil two years ago, and later sus­pended when the im­pact of what it ac­tu­ally re­quired be­came known.

That first by­law was dropped from the sky by city staff. It was a re­ac­tion to the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment’s de­cree that ev­ery mu­nic­i­pal­ity in On­tario have a plan for pro­tect­ing what is known as the “ur­ban canopy” – city trees, in other words.

No one dis­putes trees are a very good thing. They make our neigh­bour­hoods beau­ti­ful, store car­bon, re­plen­ish oxy­gen, keep homes cool on a hot sum­mer day and gen­er­ally im­prove the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment.

As we said when city coun­cil first looked at a do-over on the by­law, Peter­bor­ough cit­i­zens un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate that re­al­ity.

The proof was in the re­sults of the first 16 months of en­forc­ing the by­law, which had passed by the nar­row­est 6-5 mar­gin.

That by­law set up an ex­ten­sive ap­pli­ca­tion and fee sys­tem for any­one con­sid­er­ing tak­ing down a tree on their prop­erty. Most cases re­quired hir­ing a pro­fes­sional ar­borist or con­trac­tor.

Of roughly 1,200 ap­pli­ca­tion con­cern­ing more than 2,000 trees, 450 asked for per­mis­sion to cut down a healthy tree. One of those re­quests was de­nied. The cost to home­own­ers was nearly $20,000 in fees to the city.

Just one of the thou­sands of healthy trees grow­ing around homes in Peter­bor­ough was saved by the new sys­tem, clear proof that home­own­ers take a re­spon­si­ble ap­proach to man­ag­ing the ur­ban canopy with­out any help from a by­law.

We hope that is the mes­sage de­liv­ered when those pub­lic meet­ings are held, one in each of the five city wards.

But it is en­tirely pos­si­ble that not many in­di­vid­ual home­own­ers will show up, or that there will be a high per­cent­age of peo­ple who feel — as the city’s staff ob­vi­ously did when draft­ing the orig­i­nal reg­u­la­tions — that peo­ple can’t be trusted to do the right thing for their trees and need to be watched over and di­rected.

Should that hap­pen, city coun­cil might have to dig its col­lec­tive heels in. The re­sults of that first 16 months of en­force­ment are as ac­cu­rate a sur­vey of pub­lic ac­tions and in­tent as any­one could ask for.

Re­mem­ber also, or maybe first and fore­most, that this dis­cus­sion will be about trees in the yards of home­own­ers. Sep­a­rate reg­u­la­tions that ap­ply to larger, forested wood­lots re­main in place. Com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ers who might want to take down a large num­ber of trees an­swer to those reg­u­la­tions (which also have some re­quire­ments more oner­ous than is nec­es­sary, but that’s a story for an­other day.)

The city must show it is tak­ing ac­tion to pre­serve ur­ban trees. Its first at­tempt was bu­reau­cratic overkill. This lat­est at­tempt will “bal­ance preser­va­tion of canopy cover . . . with the need to re­spect the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of in­di­vid­ual prop­erty own­ers.”

That bal­ance can be achieved with a few sim­ple di­rec­tions, and little or no reg­u­la­tion.

Just one of the thou­sands of healthy trees grow­ing around homes in Peter­bor­ough was saved by the new sys­tem, clear proof that home­own­ers take a re­spon­si­ble ap­proach.

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