“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

–Greek Proverb

” People who will not sustain trees will soon live in a world which cannot sustain people.”

–Bryce Nelson

With a little luck—and a lot of community support—2017 will see amendments to the Courtenay tree protection bylaw that, while clarifying the on-the-ground rules, most significantly, extend the vision of the valuable part urban trees play in the ecological quality and general well being of our community.

Courtenay has had a tree bylaw since 1989 that has seen minor clarifying tweaks along the way. However, a 1989 vision—that didn’t even include how many trees need to be retained on a lot– adjusted by minor tweaking along the way has clearly left the bylaw in need of more visionary upgrading to reflect current community values and Best Management Practices on the value of urban trees.

Where any kind of protection to urban trees was once seen as a sop to environmentalist, municipal planning in the Twenty-first century has evolved to the point that meaningful planning for protection of urban trees is now seen as fundamental to planning for healthy communities. While trees continue to be recognized for contributing to the attractiveness of the physical setting of a community, they are now, also, recognized as an essential utility critical to maintaining clean air, water quality and supply, wildlife habitat, reducing our impact on climate change and enhancing economic prosperity to urban homes and businesses.

A much needed, thoroughly researched and community supported, upgrading to the current Courtenay tree protection bylaw was proceeding along quite nicely and might have been in place for the new year except for the premonitory shot across the bow by the very connected to the old boy’s network Comox Valley Development and Construction Association (CVDC).

In their October 11 written submission to Courtenay Council, the CVDC begins with what sounds conciliatory or even supportive of the tree bylaw update: “Our organization wholeheartedly supports the need for a comprehensive plan to preserve and manage our shared environmental amenities…A functional equitable tree management bylaw is key in implementation of an Urban Forest Management Strategy.”

But even in these seemingly conciliatory opening remarks, the bait is being set for a legal and logistical attack that, if adopted, would, seriously delay and ultimately kill the basis for any kind of meaningful tree protection bylaw in Courtenay.

Keeping the (they seem to hope) knock out blow hidden to the very last of the submission, the CVCD, first of all, maneuvers itself for legal challenges claiming that the amendments to the Tree Protection Bylaw are “…in reality, a new bylaw, sharing  only name with its predecessor.”  Implementation a new bylaw of this significance, in the absence of—what they would recognize as—“an overarching guiding  strategy, is akin to implementing a zoning bylaw without the community direction provided by a Official Community Plan or erecting building before preparing the construction plans.” All of this rhetoric is simply legal maneuvering to establish the thinly veiled threat of expensive litigation if the currently proposed amendments to the bylaw proceed on schedule. As documented later in this post, amendments to the tree protection bylaw were widely consulted and clearly lay out a rationale, a mechanism and a strategy for tree protection in Courtenay.

While the CVDC claims to be in support of a tree protection after a Urban Forest Management Strategy–UFMS(presumably after a lot of trees get cut down waiting for yet another consultation process) it is unhappy with the fact that some lots have more trees than others and that—in their view– is “patently unfair” because some developers would have to preserve more trees than those who own/buy lots that already have less trees than the protected number.

Shotgunning for any possible way to shore up its attack on the bylaw changes, the submission turns to the dubious argument that the bylaw will impact upward the “price for a typical single family building lot and thus “have a direct negative impact on housing affordability and growth in the City.” This is an argument that often comes up in opposition to Development Cost Charges(DCC). While it seems a logical conclusion that if DCC charges go up to support development driven infrastructure costs, then the cost of a lot will go up as developers add on the increased DCC cost to the lot price –costs that could otherwise be borne by all municipal taxpayers leaving larger profits for the developers. Interestingly when DCCs in Nanaimo were twice that of Parksville, the cost of a lot in Nanaimo was half that of its northerly neighbour. Why? Well, as per Economics 101, the cost of a lot reflects the price people are willing to pay for it. If a land developer can get $100,000 for a lot, he will not sell it for $60,000 just because he got a bargain on DCCs. Ironically treed lots may, indeed, cost more than the clearcut ones, not because of extra developer costs to maneuver around trees but because people are willing to pay more for treed lots! “

Still shotgunning for any kind of hit on the amendments to the tree protection bylaw amendments, the submission begins whining in earnest:  “It is not clear how the City intends to enforce the requirement of the bylaw on existing property owners.” Then another legal threat, ”Failure to enforce the requirements in any bylaws will led to legal challenges.” All of this is just huff and puff bluff of no meaningful substance. It is just part of the overall scatter gun attempt to throw even the remotest threats at the city’s well researched amendments to their tree protection bylaw. Clearly the city would enforce its tree protection bylaw as it already mandated to do and as it enforces its other bylaws. There would be grounds for legal action against the city if it could be shown that the city was vindictively or pointedly enforcing bylaws on one property and ignoring information it has on bylaw infractions on another property.  Imagine suing the city because its parking bylaw enforcement ticketed your over-parked car on Duncan Ave. on a Saturday but missed a car parked for an hour over the limit on 4th Street on a Tuesday! One of my most indelible impressions of life on Comox Council is the astoundingly perverse legal limitations that could be imagined for any action/bylaw that council didn’t want: legal limitations that evaporated like warm air on a hot day if the action/bylaw was one councilors were in favour of.

At the end of all this CVDC whining out comes the big guns: ”The only practical means of managing retained groves of trees or greenways in new residential areas is through dedication of these lands to the City yet the Bylaw is silent on public dedication implying that preserved trees remain with the landowner in perpetuity…This bylaw implicitly creates the need, if not requirement for lands far in excess of statutory parkland requirement to be given to the City. We have been advised that this may be in contravention of the Community Charter. Another empty litigation threat as CVDC has clearly sought legal opinion and come up with no examples of any such litigation in BC. As though the right and need of municipalities to have tree protection bylaws covering private lands is not established across BC, the CVDC submission has the gall to suggest that Courtenay cannot act to protect its urban forest as other municipalities in BC without out being drug into court to prove its well established right and obligation to provide for the health and well being of the community without having to purchase all affected property. That would be like saying that city councils can’t regulate noise in the municipality by any means other than purchasing the property on which the noise is being generated. And any purchased property would be counted as part of the park system and thus reduce the amount of land developers can be asked to set aside as community amenity.

So what happened to the nice, supportive sounding “wholeheartedly support(ing) the need for a comprehensive plan to preserve and manage our shared environmental amenities”? As a minor consolation, CVDC meekly agrees that “Consideration should rightly be given to reinstating canopy in areas of exceptionally sparse tree cove or of particular environmental significance”—hands off everything else?!

And, finally, the coup de grace: “Fund this initiate in the very same way that other community priorities, including recreational facilities and City infrastructure are funded—through taxation.” So only protect trees on land purchased with tax dollars! What would you bet that the CVDC would be the first to line up to complain if they were being taxed to purchase great swaths of land for the sole purpose of balancing the trees CVDC members were cutting down on lands that no longer came under a tree management bylaw?

tree-bylawThough the CVDC claims that the amendments to the tree protection bylaw were not adequately publicized, it is clear that over the summer well advertized public meetings were held to look at and comment on the proposed bylaws. A copy of the public presentation was made available online. A survey was sent out and made available online for over a month. A meeting with the Comox Valley arboriculture consulting industry was arranged. The CVDV was sent a written invitation to such meetings with an invitation for direct input to the bylaw revisions. Press releases about the amendment process went out twice over the summer along with paid advertisement about the public meeting to discuss the bylaw and possible amendments. The city’s website home page has an announcement about the consultations. Radio station interviews were held. The amendment process was on the City’s social media advertising. Advertisements were up on TV monitors at the Lewis Centre , Florence Filberg and City Hall. Hard copies were available at City Hall and a large poster was put up about the amendments during the property tax payment period. And AND still the CVDC has the gumption to say that the amendments were not adequately publicized! Could anything short of a seat on the mayor’s knee with a megaphone into his ear satisfy the CVDC?

BTW eighty-eight percent of respondents to the city’s widely publicized tree protection bylaw amendments were in favour; see graphs attached to this post.

Where the CVDC chooses to look at the cost of a tree protection bylaw, it is most interesting and informative to look at some of the benefits of the retention of trees within a municipality:

Urban trees:

  • absorb air borne pollutants, such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide while filtering particulate matter, such as dust, ash, pollen and smoke. Reduction in these pollutants results in improved health and reduces the severity of ozone-induced asthmatic responses.
  • absorb carbon dioxide at an approximate rate of 230 lbs per year per tree
  • produce enough oxygen each day for 18 people
  • moderate temperatures in both summer and winter leading to a more enjoyable ambience as well as lowering heating/cooling costs to the city and residences
  • provide food and nesting habitat for wildlife increasing the enjoyment of our communities
  • preserves essential fish habitat
  • enhance water conservation
  • stabilize soils and water courses from erosion—prevents flooding
  • enhance the enjoyment and attractiveness of the community

While CVDC starts its submission with an acknowledgement of the value of the urban forest, its criticisms of proposed amendments to Courtenay’s tree protection bylaw leave one with the distinct impression that trees are a nice amenity if you can have a few around without costing developers any inconvenience. However the perceptual problems with the CVDC presentation start with the very assumption that trees are a nice amenity. Trees are, in reality, the bedrock infrastructure on which an enjoyable, sustainable, healthy and affordable community are built.