OPINION: Misguided tree bylaw leaves homeowners stumped

George Mathewson

I doubt the administrators at City Hall meant to trigger a widespread slaughter of healthy trees when they pushed for a municipal tree bylaw.

But that is exactly what’s happening right now.

All across the city, homeowners are eagerly removing trees from their property before the municipality tells them that they can’t.

Their reasons are varied. Some want to build a deck or shed where a tree now stands. Another told me a fast-growing poplar threatens his house and he’s taking it out now to avoid the hassle and expense of dealing with city bureaucrats once the bylaw is enacted.

And don’t take it from me, ask the professionals doing the cutting.

“I’m getting 50% more calls,” said Ron Campbell, the owner of Lambton Tree Service, who added there is “no question” the coming bylaw is responsible.

The draft tree bylaw, as written, will require every property owner in the urban area who wants to remove a tree to first obtain a permit.

To get a permit, you must submit a written application and a plan or drawing of your property. You must flag the tree or trees in question, pay an as-yet unspecified fee, and, possibly, obtain a report from an arborist at your expense.

If the tree is healthy, the officer can refuse to issue a permit.

If the tree is dead, dying or diseased you still need a permit to remove it.

A permit is required even if trees “are causing or are likely to cause damage to a structure.” If a tree has already fallen on the roof and is deemed hazardous, by an officer, in writing, it can be removed without a permit.

If you do obtain a tree permit, it must be posted on your property for a minimum of seven days before the tree can be removed.

Finally — and here’s the kicker — the draft bylaw authorizes the city’s tree officers to wander into a private backyard and sniff around at “any reasonable time” to ensure a property is in compliance.

If it isn’t, fines run up to $5,000, plus costs, per offence.

Understand, I am a tree hugger. I once worked as a Ministry of Natural Resources supervisor and have overseen the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees, professionally and personally.

The identification, cultivation and slow, mysterious lives of trees are a particular passion of mine.

But this well-meaning attempt to increase the native tree canopy is an overreach. The draft, which the city hopes to approve this fall, gives the municipality and its tree police unreasonable authority and is a needless intrusion on private property rights.

What’s more, I fear this effort to control something as simple as growing a tree will prove counterproductive.

Not only is it driving people to cut down healthy trees before it comes into effect, it could very well make them think twice before ever buying and planting another tree again.

And nobody wants that.

What do you think? The city is looking for public input. Visit http://planning.smartsarnia.com/ to submit comments and complete a questionnaire.