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Black day for trees on private property

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

September 17 was a black day for trees on private property. At 231 Daniel Avenue, a majestic black walnut was destroyed against the wishes of the property owner by a reckless,  first-time developer and a City of Ottawa afraid of its own shadow.

Here is the sequence of events.

  1. A young man enters the infill development game by buying a post-wartime bungalow to tear down and rebuild in the modern style. The flamboyant architect hired for the job sees nothing but a blank canvas. The single dwelling, 5,000 square feet where previously there were 1,200, barely takes into account the massive maple on the street front owned by the City of Ottawa. It is also oblivious to a towering black walnut planted 65 years ago on the neighbor’s property.

  2. July 5, 2015: A contractor digs a trench to shut off the water main in preparation for demolition. Forestry Services and Water and Sanitation are unaware of the risk to a tree more than a meter in diameter and some 45 feet high. A neighbor happens to cycle by, calls 311 and the forester responsible for services in the ward. A Forestry Services manager thanks him for being “eyes on the street”.

  3. A week later heavy equipment rumbles over the root zone of the maple and tears up 40% of the roots of the neighbor’s black walnut. The tree is valuable. The Great Ecology Ottawa Tree Map estimates the total annual benefit at $16,990 for energy conserved (56,543 kwh), storm water filtered (1,262,540 L), air quality improved (82 kg), carbon dioxide removed (27,852 kg) and carbon dioxide stored to date (227,477 kg). Black walnut is the most expensive wood available at any lumber store. Destroying this property is not unlike someone crushing the Passat sitting in your driveway while you are out at work.

  4. Final excavation starts early August and still no protections are in place. A resident calls the City again, and the attention forces the contractor to suspend work. Some City staff describe it as a stop work order. Both trees are technically protected by the City’s by-laws: the Urban Tree Conservation by-law for trees more than 50 cm in diameter on private property and the Municipal Tree and Natural Areas by-law for City trees.

  5. A fence goes up around the City tree protecting about 50% of the critical root zone, mulch is scattered on the ground to conserve moisture, and a barrel of water is installed. It is hot by now, with little rain in early August. The total cost of the protections is about $1,200 according to the developer. To the delight of local tree activists, the City posts a freshly printed sign declaring the City tree a “protected tree”. The community association has been lobbying for signage like this for several years, and even produced their own based on materials used in every other major city across Canada. A cause for celebration.

  6. August 24: Forestry Services expresses a glimmer of hope: “Tree protection and mitigation measures for the walnut were also discussed with the developer at 231 Daniel that include root pruning, crown reduction (to reduce damage during construction), as well as protective fencing.” This tall, healthy and beautiful tree was planted shortly after WW II by the couple that built the house. They often talked with neighbors about how much pleasure they got from sitting under the shade of this tree. They loved this tree, and passed away thinking it would be there for decades to come.

  7. August 25-September 1: Discussions begin between the developer, the neighbor that owns the black walnut, the City, arborists and lawyers. The tree owner, hopping mad about what has happened, is advised by various parties that the damage is such that the tree will die in three to four years. And that he will be liable for any damage caused to the house-to-be-built next to him. Facing a future bill for removal in excess of $4,000, he feels he has no choice but to allow removal of the tree now.

  8. September 1, the City issues a tree permit for removal of the black walnut, executed on September 17th. Neighbors from up and down the block wander by, puzzled by what they see: a big, strong, healthy tree dismembered branch by branch and reduced to a stump in a matter of hours.

What is the lesson for developers here? One is that they can intentionally (or not) destroy the roots of a neighbor’s tree, and force its removal against their will and intention, all without Forestry Services even being aware of the risk unless a citizen brings it to their attention. And all that Forestry Services can do is issue a tree permit for removal once an arborist concludes that the tree will not survive. The tree owner is left with no tree, and the neighborhood poorer for the loss.

This has happened before all across the city, including on Daniel Avenue. Only 12 months earlier a builder destroyed 50% of the roots of a black walnut owned by the Ottawa Separate School Board, forcing removal of the tree at the Board’s expense. The builder was charged with damaging a tree without a permit, but the City of Ottawa legal team bungled and lost the case, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen.

What is the lesson for residents wanting to protect their property and neighborhoods blessed by big trees gifted to us by previous generations? Clearly there is no leadership from the Mayor or legal department when it comes to implementing by-laws that inconvenience the reckless rush to infill. Laws and practices of tree and canopy protection that are entirely normal and respected in major cities across the country are ignored here over and over again, to our shame and future poverty.

What are the Councilors and City staff going to do to correct this bizarre and unprofessional mismanagement? While some might think that the launch of Ottawa’s Urban Forest Management Plan on September 23, National Tree Day, means something, the juggernaut of unbridled new construction continues to trump the private and collective rights of people actually living in homes and neighborhoods today. --Daniel Buckles

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