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Beyond Sir Issac Newton

Updated: Apr 22, 2020


England’s National Trust protects historic places and green spaces in the UK, including the apple tree at Sir Issac Newton’s home in Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire that is said to have inspired his theory of gravity. Is this the yardstick against which Ottawa’s heritage trees are to be measured, or do we have our own natural and human history worth celebrating?

The chain buried deep in this 154 year-old Champlain Oak, felled by in-fill development in 2011, would surely say yes, if it could. But after two years of trying, the Champlain Oaks Project has failed to inspire the City staff responsible for heritage conservation in Ottawa to think of trees as heritage property in and of itself (without being attached somehow to a building).

Our latest proposal, submitted formally in June 2013 to the Planning and Growth Management Department of the City of Ottawa, was rejected in part on legal advice. Legal staff argued that no effective protection would be provided to trees listed in the Heritage Register of the City of Ottawa. This is, in my view, flawed thinking that by extension would conclude that listing of a building in the Heritage Register would not provide any protection to the building. Importantly, the opinion does not recognize that the 90 day period of review required for heritage-listed properties provides additional protections beyond what is already offered by the Urban Tree Conservation By-Law (a 7 day notice period). For a tree of heritage value at risk, the difference is 83 days during which mitigation and protection measures can be considered and negotiated with due attention to the balance between private property rights and the public good. It is for this reason that municipalities throughout the Province of Ontario have listed trees in their Heritage Registers. Why not in Ottawa?

A second argument made by the City is that the Champlain Oaks do not merit protection under the Ontario Heritage Act (Part IV). Fair enough. They do not have the international pedigree of Sir Issac Newton’s apple tree. They do, however, stand up quite well to comparisons with The Allanburg Heritage Oak in Thorold, Ontario or the Jacob Fisher Bur Oak in Woodbridge. Judge for yourself in light of documentation of the natural and human history of the Champlain Oaks submitted to the City for review.

Our experience to date suggests that the problem lies in the absence of a modern definition of Heritage Trees for use by City staff and the citizens of Ottawa when recognizing the city’s natural heritage. The City of Toronto has found guidance recently in the Heritage Tree recognition program of Trees Ontario, which is not treated by the City as equivalent to designation under the Ontario Heritage Act. Why not in Ottawa?

It is time to create a definition of Heritage Trees that offers scope for recognition and protection of Ottawa’s natural heritage and its lasting relationship to people in an urban environment. --Daniel Buckles

Top picture: bur oak on Patricia Ave shows how home built around the oak.

Photo #2 shows bur oak in front of cottage dating from early 20th century on Cowley Ave, now the home of Mr. Steve and wife, Kay, Kot.

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