Homeowners can be trusted with their own trees
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.