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Proposed bylaw would require a permit to cut down trees in Orillia

'We need to examine in the municipality whether it is still alright to just pull out a chainsaw and cut down a mature, healthy tree willy nilly,' said proponent

If a healthy tree is cut down in Orillia, does anyone notice?

Right now, there is no regulation in place to prevent someone from cutting down a healthy tree on their property.

Orillia’s environmental advisory committee (EAC) wants that to change. This week, the group presented a new draft tree preservation bylaw to city council that was supported, in principle, by local politicians.

EAC chair Michael Williams said the new bylaw is necessary.

“I think the time has arisen that we need to examine in the municipality whether it is still alright to just pull out a chainsaw and cut down a mature healthy tree willy nilly,” Williams told city councillors.  

“Or do we need to have sober second thought? Do we need to look at a system where someone might need to seek permission to do that?” Williams asked. “That’s what is proposed here.”

Williams and other committee members have been working on this bylaw for about 18 months, but the seed was planted much earlier.

In 2016, the volunteer-driven committee began to document the current “tree canopy” of the city.

A ‘tree canopy’ is the surface area covered by the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above. 

In March 2018, EAC unveiled the results of their comprehensive study that revealed a 32% tree canopy cover.

Since then, the group has been trying to promote initiatives that lead to more trees being planted in an effort to improve that percentage. 

Despite the work and despite buy-in from citizens, the group has made “minute gains.”

On top of that, there “just isn’t enough publicly owned lands or large tracts of privately owned land in the city where you can plant trees to significantly change or enhance that amount of cover,” Williams said.

“It leaves you with one inescapable conclusion: You need to preserve what is here,” he implored.

He said it’s not just about the city creating a bylaw. 

“This is all of us: every property owner that has trees on their property needs to realize the values of those trees, understand what they’re worth and, I’d suggest, needs to look after them.”

Under the proposed bylaw, “no person shall, within the geographic limits of the city, destroy, injure, or cause, or permit destruction or injuring of any tree with a (diameter at breast height) equal to or greater than 15 centimetres.”

The draft bylaw goes on to decree a person can only “destroy or injure, or cause, or permit the destruction or injuring of a tree in compliance with a permit issued pursuant to this bylaw prior to the destruction or injuring of a tree.”

In essence, if a person wants to cut down a healthy tree (the bylaw would exempt diseased, dead or potentially dangerous trees), they would have to get a permit to do so.

That opens up a lot of potential issues, noted Coun. Ted Emond, who stressed he was in favour of the bylaw - “in principle.”

However, he thought it was necessary to give city staff more time to determine the potential ramifications of such a change.

“I think it would be to our advantage to delay adopting this (so we can) hear from staff” about the implications.

“It’s not just the fact tree cover is precious. We need to preserve what we have and I’m fully in support of that. I don’t think a delay of a few months … would be catastrophic.”

Ian Sugden, the city’s director of development services, said such a delay would be helpful. He suggested he needs about three months to consider what such a bylaw would mean to city staff.

“The current tree conservation bylaw is a much lighter version of this document,” noted Sugden, adding property owners and developers are accustomed to the current regime.

“This would be a significant change that we would need some time to promote and to educate and to get people up to speed,” said Sugden.

He said in a typical year, under the current bylaw, the city receives four or five requests a year to cut down a tree.  

“I suspect the numbers would go up substantially,” said Sugden, who noted that would have an impact on staff resources.

In addition to creating a permit process, there would have to be a discussion about user fees.

Williams said while he hoped council would endorse the idea, he stressed a delay would be acceptable if it meant “getting it right.”

Two councillors wanted to see the bylaw take effect more quickly.

Coun. Pat Hehn said a citizen recently told her about someone who had cut down some “beautiful” trees in his neighbourhood.

“It takes 50 or 60 years for a tree (to reach its full growth),” said Hehn, “so I’m not sure I want to (delay this.)”

Coun. Jay Fallis agreed. He said he appreciated EAC’s report, which deemed trees as assets.

“In the context of climate change, addressing issues around flooding and many others, it’s an important thing to recognize that the tree itself has value,” said Fallis. “If we don’t recognize that, we fail to preserve an asset.”

In the end, a majority of council agreed to support the draft bylaw in principle. However, staff from the clerk's department and the development services and engineering department were directed to provide a review and analysis of the “administration and implementation of the draft” bylaw, including staffing implications and estimated costs, at the April 20, 2020 council committee meeting. 

“I’m supportive of taking the time to get this right, in making sure it works, that staff are comfortable with administering it, that council is comfortable with decisions they made on size limitations, the type of permits and the regulations required,” said Williams, who noted EAC is willing to help throughout the process.

“And one of the things I’d strongly encourage is there be a stakeholder consultation part to this,” said Williams, who suggested a public meeting might be helpful.  It’s very important that the community out there understands the reason for doing this and understands the rules.”

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Dave Dawson

About the Author: Dave Dawson

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