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Tree Conservation and NIMBYs

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

An open letter to Mr. Kirkpatrick (City Manager) and the City of Ottawa Environment Committee,

As the City’s General Manager you are responsible for approving or denying tree permits under the Urban Tree Conservation By-law (passed in 2009). Why is it that no application for a tree permit has been denied since its inception, and under what conditions or circumstance would you deny a permit?

I pose this question to sharply separate the controversies around urban infill and potential NIMBY reactions to development, from the shared interests of Ottawa’s urban and rural wards with significant trees. We are a city blessed with native trees representative of the original ecosystems of the Ottawa valley, some of which also have outstanding cultural, historical and social value to citizens over and above their many well documented economic and ecological values (see note on the values of trees, below).

How is it that the City of Mississagua, devastated for decades by urban sprawl, can muster the commitment to conserve what remains of its original 10,000 year old Carolinian Forest when our city does not seem to want to use the by-laws we have to conserve what is arguably a more intact asset? Must we become an urban desert before we wake up? (see resolution from the City of Mississagua, below).

My question to you is prompted by a specific case I am sure you are familiar with: 115 Northwestern Avenue in Westboro. It is not much different, however, from both past and undoubtedly future instances anywhere in the City (rural and urban) where you will be asked to issue a tree permit when there are good grounds to deny it (1). The bur oak on this property is more than a metre in diametre (3 + metres in circumference), about 180 years old (pre-confederation), and a healthy remnant of the original riparian oak forest first noted in the historical record in 1686 by the French captain Chevalier de Troyes. He and a party of soldiers portaged around what later became known as the Deschênes Rapids (oak rapids) on the Ottawa River, and remarked on the presence of the oaks still represented in Champlain Park.

While this case is clearly linked to infill development, the core issue is of a different order. The unfortunate developer of the property is in the unhappy situation of having purchased a property at a price that leaves him little choice but to cut down what he should have known from the beginning was a tree that must not be destroyed. Other developers that actually live in the neighbourhood passed on the opportunity to purchase this property because they knew the value of the tree to the neighbourhood. The new owner should have known better, and would have if the Urban Tree Conservation By-law actually meant something and was actually applied. Fore warning would have been provided to him, and someone else with less ‘ambitious’ development plans would have purchased the property and constructed a single dwelling that conserved the tree. It wouldn’t surprise me if the developer in question rues the day he purchased the property because he will still not realize the profits of his dreams. And the tree will die. Everyone loses.

The point I wish to make is that conserving significant trees in the City of Ottawa is not in conflict with intensification per se, or the lament of people crying “not in my back yard”. Significant trees are an asset to all citizens in Ottawa. By applying the by-law when there is merit the conventional developers will learn to avoid the rare properties where these trees exist, leaving the property for development by more imaginative home builders and people that want to live with a magnificent tree nearby.

The position I am taking does raise a legitimate concern regarding the impact an active application of the by-law might have on property values. Someone with a significant tree on their property might not realize the maximum value of the property if there is a risk a tree permit might be denied. This is not trivial as every property owner has the right to realize the full economic value of their property. There are, however, several possible responses to this concern.

First, voluntary designation of the significance of a tree by the property owner immediately resolves the matter in a non-controversial way. That is what Heritage Tree Designations increasing common in Ontario accomplish. This is an established legal mechanisms we should have in the City of Ottawa, defined broadly enough to include ecological heritage as understood by the Ontario Heritage Act. Conservation easements, also common, are a similar voluntary designation that effectively and permanently protects significant works of nature.

Second, the novel concept Smart In My Back Yard (SIMBY) creates scope for reasoned discussions about public goods and the perverse economics of unfettered development. It is reasonable to argue that the premium paid by the developer to the original property owner at 115 Northwestern was something in the order of $20,000 over property values at the time. This ensured he got the property and not someone who actually might have renovated the existing house or built a similar house that conserved the tree. The premium was paid predicated on the assumption that there would be no risks or limitations associated with the presence of a distinctive tree on the property, and that the site would be developed to the absolute maximum (including variances in all directions). The current logic is that the developer is free to destroy a significant tree to build an oversized house in a community where trees are part of the appeal of the neighbourhood. Therein lies the perversion. An act by one person takes advantage of a collective asset and degrades it at the same time.

A history of cases of actual application of the Urban Tree Conservation By-law (conservation is a key word, right?) would help establish the principle of “design with nature” and begin to build a new economic logic for infill development. Trees do bring real economic value to neighbourhoods. The by-law, if applied, can help property owners begin to realize that value rather than be forced to spoil it.

I would appreciate your thoughts on my opening question.

Best Regards,

Daniel Buckles 201 Daniel Ave. Ottawa, Ontario

(1) I know there is at present no need for a tree permit to cut significant trees in Ottawa’s rural wards, but that is another matter. Also, a different set of measures would be needed to protect the economic interests of property owners in rural areas where property values follow a different logic from urban areas.

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