Criminal investigation follows illegal pruning of 'majestic' sequoia tree

Initial 'butchering' of $100,000 tree resulted in $3,000 fine

To them, it was their neighbourhood’s General Sherman — literally breathing life into its local residents.

But now, the alleged greed of a local developer, who is accused of butchering what was once described as a “majestic” sequoia tree on public land, has shaken residents of Gibbons Drive in the Thompson neighbourhood.

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“It’s sad, really. It was kind of a neighbourhood tree,” said Reiner Siperko, a long-time homebuilder himself and area resident, speaking to the News in front of the nearly branchless tree. 

“I phoned the builder and he told me he was afraid the limbs were going to fall down and hit his son. Well, I said, that’s interesting because you don’t live here and the house is for sale. So that was a big baloney story,” said Siperko.

pruning illegal
According to the city, the owner of 6691 Gibbons Drive, Jasvir Cheema, repeatedly hired a pruner to take down a sequoia tree on city property. Photo by Graeme Wood

The purposeful, repeated de-branching and cutting of the sequoia, valued by the City of Richmond at between $75,000-$100,000, is now a criminal police investigation, according to city spokesperson Ted Townsend.

According to eyewitness accounts of several neighbours and even one city councillor, a contracted pruner repeatedly ignored a stop-work order that was posted on the tree on March 1, after the city had found that the lower limbs had been cut off.

According to neighbours Paul Dylla and Mandy Lichtmann, the pruner came in a cab one day, last week, and when they called bylaw officers to report him he promptly left, again, in a cab.

“I walked by and I was very saddened to see, again, a whole bunch of limbs on the ground,” said Lichtmann, who posted photos of the destruction on the Facebook page Save Richmond Trees.

The last time around, the pruner managed to use his chainsaw to cut into the upper portion of the trunk. Since then, the city has had to come in and top (cut) the tree for safety reasons. It now stands mostly debranched and without a top.

The owner of the property is listed as Jasvir Cheema.

In 2012 the property sold for $898,000 with an older home sitting on it. In late 2014 Cheema (and Harpreet Cheema) applied for a building permit for a new house with a construction value of $414,000 and then applied to the city to remove the tree.

Cheema was denied and a letter of understanding was signed with the city considering it wasn’t the first time such a request had been made, noted Townsend.

“The applicant was told to retain the tree and ensure any work around it would ensure its continued health,” said Townsend.

But this February, the city commenced enforcement action and issued Cheema a $3,000 fine for unauthorized pruning, after what Townsend described as “fairly steady” contact between the two parties over the past year regarding the protection of the tree.

The new house is now listed for sale for $3.68 million. Cheema has been involved in at least two other recent detached home developments, according to city permit records. This May, his company Calbric Homes Inc. applied for a demolition permit at 7740 Alouette Court. Last year, he built a new home at 7333 Bridge Street. There, two large and otherwise healthy mature evergreens are showing visible signs of dying following the construction of the new home.

The News attempted to call numbers listed under Jasvir Cheema. One man with the same name replied, stating he was a builder in Richmond but has never owned or developed property on Gibbons Drive.

Nearby resident Mira Williams said this one specific incident is symptomatic of a bigger problem.

“Every time someone takes something that isn’t theirs from our neighbourhood without any consequence for how others feel about it, it changes things forever. I live a couple blocks away and on our street alone, numerous times, after hours, on city property, or under the guise of new development, people try to skirt the rules,” said Williams, noting six “magnificent” firs were cut down on nearby city property after being sabotaged.

“The changes in the 10 short years have been phenomenal. I mean, the deforestation of our street is unreal,” she said.

Siperko said he was “livid” and as a builder worried about the reputation of good homebuilders.

A worker can be seen pruning a tree on public property in front of the home at 6691 Gibbons Drive, owned by Jasvir Cheema. Neighbours asked the pruner to stop. He did and left in a taxi before bylaw officers were called. Photo submitted.

Siperko wants the city to start banning bylaw violators.

“Is he a registered builder? Or is he one of these ‘homeowner built’ guys? The city lets that fly under the radar. It’s baloney.

“We have to pay our fees to be a registered builder. It’s supposed to mean something. It’s uncanny what’s going on in this city,” said Siperko.

He speculated that the owner wanted the tree to come down to increase the property value of the home. But Siperko believes it’s an “urban myth” that Chinese buyers — for whom many builders say such homes are built for and marketed toward — don’t like trees. If anything it’s the opposite, he said, noting he never needs to cut down mature trees on his own projects. 

Everyone the News spoke to agreed the city needs to up its fines, which presently max out at $10,000 for tree violations.

“On a $3 million home, you think they care?” quipped Lichtmann.

Furthermore, Williams wants the city to replace felled trees with the same or similar species, noting the six firs were “replaced with spindly little non-evergreen trees.”

Coun. Bill McNulty witnessed the violations take place last week (the pruner ignored him) after being asked by residents to visit the site. He said he agrees the fines need to be stiffer.

“I was livid . . . That tree was a piece of art.”

He suggested in this case the fine ought to be what the city arborists consider to be the value of the tree.

McNulty said he also wants the city to be more vigilant in replanting the same large species in neighbourhoods. He said the city will need to hire more bylaw enforcement staff, as well.

City staff are expected to present council with a  review of the tree protection bylaw this fall.

Everyone agreed the tree, as it stands, should remain.

“It should stay. It should stay and maybe put a plaque on it — this is what happens when you butcher a tree,” said Siperko.

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