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Vancouver loses 640 trees because of council-approved bylaw change

City’s tree protection bylaw expected to get ‘major revamp’ over next two years
TreeBylawVancouver
Vancouver lost an estimated 640 trees over the past year because of a city council decision connected to speeding up wait times for builders seeking permits.

An estimated 640 trees were cut down over the past year in Vancouver because of a city council decision last June connected to reducing wait times for builders to begin construction on tree-covered properties.

The temporary change to a section of the tree bylaw allowed builders to cut down trees up to 30 centimetres in diameter, an increase from the 20-centimetre threshold established long ago by council.

The move was done to allow “low-risk” permit applications from builders to be processed faster and only require an arborist’s report when trees exceeded a certain size, or if a life-safety issue was connected to a property’s landscape.

In a report before council in June 2021, city staff estimated 200 small trees would be lost over the year-long relaxation of the bylaw. But a new report that goes before council Tuesday (June 7) said approximately 640 trees were felled over the past year.

“Staff have been monitoring impacts and estimate that approximately 240 trees [20-30cms] have been removed in the development permit stream without a conflict with development, and while difficult to quantify, estimate that approximately 400 trees [20–30cms] may have been removed on private property at the owner’s discretion,” the report said.

“Further, staff view that these changes have had some negative impacts to operations, including an increase in the number and severity of complaints.”

'Trade-off'

While the temporary bylaw change reduced permit processing times, the impact on the city’s ecological and climate change goals “has been challenging and other initiatives have had a greater impact on processing times,” the staff report said.

Staff now recommends council roll back the 30-centimetre diameter threshold to 20 centimetres.

Despite the loss of the trees, the report concluded the year-long experiment represented “a trade-off” between the city’s urban forest canopy preservation and retention priorities and reducing permit processing times.

“Staff conclude that this change has had a positive impact on time spent on landscape reviews and has helped achieve a reduction in permit review times in the face of a glut of development permit applications,” the report said.

“In essence, this change has served as a valve to release pressure on staff that are spread thin. In addition, conversations with the development industry have generally revealed support for this amendment. Conversely, these changes have resulted in tree canopy cover loss.”

'Every tree is precious' in a 'climate crisis'

Coun. Adriane Carr, who voted against relaxing the tree bylaw in June 2021, said Monday that she was glad to see staff recommend a return to the 20-centimetre threshold.

“Every tree is precious,” Carr said. “We are in a climate crisis. People understand that we need to increase our tree canopy, not decrease it.”

Carr stressed the need for more trees in the city, particularly when events such as last summer’s “heat dome” exposed neighbourhoods that lacked tree cover for shade and cooling of space.

“There are parts of the city that have very few trees, especially if you go to the east side of the city,” she said. “We know we have to plant more, and the loss of every tree is really problematic when you're trying to increase the canopy. So it was a wrong move.”

Whether more tree cover in the city would have prevented some of the heat-related deaths or illness in Vancouver during the heat dome is unclear, but it is a question Glacier Media explored in an investigation last fall.

A story posted in September 2021 revealed that unreleased data collected by Vancouver Coastal Health showed neighbourhoods in South Vancouver saw double the number of heat-related hospitalizations during the heat dome compared to Point Grey, Dunbar and Shaughnessy.

In the Downtown Eastside, hospitalizations tripled, with more people admitted to emergency rooms due to heat than anywhere else in the city.

Urban forest canopy at 23 per cent

Vancouver’s urban forest canopy, which refers to leaves, branches and stems covering the ground as viewed from above, was at 23 per cent in 2020 (2,645 hectares out of the city’s total area of 11,500 hectares), according to data from the park board.

In Vancouver, regional climate models predict twice as many summer days above 25°Celsius in the 2050s than present (from 18 days to 43 days). By the 2050s, an extreme heat event that happened once every 25 years will occur three times as frequently, according to the city’s 2018 urban forestry strategy.

Council is on record of wanting the city’s tree canopy to reach 30 per cent by 2050.

Coun. Christine Boyle, who agreed with staff’s recommendation last June to increase the threshold for a cuttable tree from 20 centimetres to 30 centimetres, acknowledged Monday that “it wasn’t the right move.”

“I'm concerned that we saw that many trees lost, and I'm glad the [staff] recommendation is to undo that change,” Boyle said.

“Of course, we always hope we get it right the first time. But if that's not the case, I hope at least that we learn from the things we're doing and keep on working at achieving that goal around reducing the permitting backlog, and that's what I see happening.”

'Major revamp'

The Vancouver Courier reported in 2014 that more than 23,000 healthy trees were cut down in the city between 1996 and 2013. Back in 1995, more than 22 per cent of the city was covered in trees and that dropped to 18 per cent in 2013, with almost all of the canopy decline occurring on private property.

Meanwhile, the city’s tree protection bylaw is expected to get “a major revamp” over the next two years to align it with the city’s environmental, development and climate change goals.

At the same time, it’s expected to provide additional clarity to staff, industry and applicants on requirements and conditions associated with tree protection.

“Rather than advancing further piecemeal changes to the bylaw, staff are planning a full review of the bylaw including: affirming goals for urban canopy; addressing gaps and circumventions of the current by-law; providing clarity on tree preservation, replacement and enforcement; understanding and building for the impacts on permitting operations and landscape review,” the staff report said.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings

   

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