Developers cutting trees for convenience undeterred by low fines levied by city

Whether it’s magnificent elms and Manitoba maples or evergreen and birch trees – Parkdale residents are seeing 60 to 70-year-old trees hitting the ground at heartbreaking speed. The neighbourhood was constructed shortly after World War II, and most of the trees were planted in the 1950s.

Parkdale Community Association director Bill Biccum said he believes the issue lies with the city’s easily affordable tree-cutting fines.

“There is no disincentive not to chop down a 70-year-old tree and protect it, because it costs under $3000 to replace,” Biccum said.

He added when a developer is building a site where the property is anticipated to sell for between $700,000 to $1.5 million, the repercussion of chopping down a city-owned tree barely registers on the radar screen.

“Essentially, the developers are making more than enough money to do as they please,” he said.

City’s fines against cutters

Bill Bruce, city chief bylaw officer, confirmed that in most cases the fine for cutting down a tree is $500.

“Five hundred dollars is a specified penalty placed on the ticket. Once proven guilty you can be charged, not fined, the replacement cost of the tree.”

Bruce said depending on the seriousness of the offence, the city can require a mandatory court appearance to request a higher fine. Ten thousand dollars is the maximum fine that can be given for any tree bylaw offence.

The City of Calgary is forced to abide by the Municipal Act, which states that the maximum tree bylaw fine is $10,000.

“It’s not a huge fine, but there is a provision where they can be charged the cost of replacing the tree,” Bruce said. “In some cases, a mature tree can be assessed at $20,000.”Construction zone on 28th Street and 6th Avenue in Parkdale.
Photo by: April Ip

Bruce agreed these fines may not be enough to deter developers from cutting them down. “How do you place a value on a 70-year-old elm tree? How do you place a value in that?” he asked.

The Parkdale Tree Huggers is a group of concerned residents who are working to keep Parkdale green. These residents work to replace trees that have been removed due to redevelopment.

Kara Hallett, a member of the Tree Huggers committee, said that developers are seeing opportunities to tear down post-war bungalows and make something grandiose “like a duplex or a big fancy home.”

She said that developers are “cutting down mature trees to gain easy access to the home or to make a big foot mark on the housing market.”

Hallett added that elm trees are valued at around $4000 to replace brand new. “Valuing a beautifully grown tree at $10,000 is a really cheap tree fine.”

Responding after the fact

Hallett said that one of the main problems is the city’s 2012 contextual building approval process.

“If the developer isn’t asking for a tree-cutting bylaw relaxation – the community isn’t informed that there will be a new development happening.”

An instance that Hallett recalled was of a bungalow built in the 1950s. “The developer had submitted for his development permit and stated in the contextual agreement that they would be preserving the city-owned trees,” she said.

Hallett said that the city gave the go ahead based on the fact that no city-owned trees would have to be cut down.

“Once the developer got the permit they chopped down all the trees, completely clear-cutting the lot.”

Hallett added the community was not notified the site was to be developed until it was too late.

Bylaw officer representatives could not confirm whether such an instance was reported to the city. However, Bruce said that since the year 2010, he has investigated 226 tree complaints citywide.

“Essentially, the developers are making more than enough money to do as they please.”
— Bill Biccum,
Parkdale Community Association

The Urban Development Institute, an organization representing more than 180 home developers, did not deny that developers remove trees when absolutely necessary.

Michael Flynn, executive director of the institute, said, “Overall, trees are seen as an amenity and add value to the property if it’s older.”

He added that trees are expensive. To replace one is a major cost to the developer or homebuilder.

“It is disappointing when trees are removed, but on average a home developer sees the value in a tree and would do everything they can to avoid having to remove one.”

Solutions

Hallett said if the city were to implement a more severe penalty for violating tree-cutting laws, mature trees could be saved. “The cheap fines we have right now are absolutely no deterrent.”

A spokesperson for Druh Farrell, alderman for Ward 7 – where Parkdale is located, said Farrell is a strong supporter of preserving the urban forest.

“She is very open to any suggestions that the city’s parks department, urban forestry planning team has at this time,” said spokesperson Carol Armes.

aip@cjournal.ca