Want To Cut Down A Tree In Toronto? Good Luck With That

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 13 October 2020 05:00

Recently the Arbor Day Foundation, one of the largest conservation foundations in the world, presented its Champion of Trees Award to the City of Toronto.

The award recognizes “exemplary leadership to develop and implement new policies and practices for municipal tree planting and care, natural area stewardship or arboriculture.”

Toronto has planted more than one million trees since 2005, investing $605.6 million in its urban forest.  A 2018 study by the city estimated that the city’s tree canopy – the area of the tree population as viewed from above – at 28.4 to 31 per cent. The goal is to increase that canopy to 40 per cent.

In addition to planting new trees, the city has tough bylaws to protect existing ones – including those on private property. Residents who want to cut down a tree on their land are often shocked to find out they can’t do it. The city takes tree cutting so seriously that decisions on whether an individual tree can be cut down are often decided by the entire city council.

In a typical recent case, a homeowner wanted a Norway maple on his property removed because he said it could cause damage to his foundation wall, and because there was risk to an elderly neighbour who could slip on fallen leaves in autumn.

The city’s Urban Forestry staff examined the tree and determined that it is “botanically and structurally healthy”. They also said there was no evidence the tree is associated with any leaking through or beneath the foundation wall. “Tree roots are not physically capable of exerting the force required to lift or crack properly constructed and maintained foundation walls,” said the Urban Forestry staff in a report. “However, if property drainage has not been provided, heaving may occur as a result of freezing and thawing, creating space that tree roots may grow into….Waterproofing of the foundation, if not already done, would prevent roots from growing in any existing cracks or other openings in the foundation. The problem described here can typically be repaired without requiring tree removal.”

As far as the slippery leaves were concerned, the report recommended that the homeowner rake them up. City council denied the request to remove the tree.

Another tricky application came from a family that wanted to remove a black walnut tree because the walnuts posed a risk of anaphylactic allergic reaction to the four-year-old child who lived there. A doctor’s note confirmed the seriousness of the allergy.

But the Urban Forestry staff denied the request, suggesting that physically collecting and removing the walnuts and educating those at risk would reduce the likelihood of exposure.

The decision was appealed and at city council, a motion was made to approve the removal despite the staff report. That vote resulted in an 11-11 tie, but since a majority was required, the motion failed. Council then voted to support the staff report and the walnut tree is still there.

Even when a request to cut down a tree is granted, it’s a costly process for the homeowners. Council recently agreed to let a homeowner cut down a city-owned tree on a city right of way to accommodate a new driveway entrance, but the property owner had to pay the city for the appraised value of the tree ($3,809); pay the costs of removing the tree; and plant five replacement trees on the property, or pay cash-in-lieu of planting.

Why is Toronto so fixated on saving individual trees, when the city has more than 11.5 million of them? Despite the planting programs over the last decade, the 2018 report found that impervious land cover – such as concrete or buildings – increased by 1.4 per cent over the last decade.

The city’s tree population has also taken some hits. An ice storm in 2013 took out many of them, and infections of the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer have also decimated the tree population in some areas.

“Trees improve the quality of urban life and contribute greatly to our sense of community,” says Urban Forestry in its reports. “They help soften the hard lines of built form and surfaces in an urban setting.

Trees contribute to the overall character and quality of neighbourhoods. Studies suggest that social benefits such as crime reduction and neighbourhood cohesion can be attributed to the presence of trees.”

From an economic standpoint, trees enhance property values. Mature trees can reduce the energy consumption of a home by lowering air conditioning costs in summer and protecting homes from the wind in winter.

“The environmental benefits of trees include cleansing of air, noise and wind reduction and protection from ultraviolet radiation,” says Urban Forestry. “Trees reduce rainwater runoff thereby reducing soil erosion and lowering storm water management costs. They also contribute to moderation of temperature extremes and reduction of the urban heat island effect by providing shade during summer.”

These benefits are worth an estimated $55 million per year.

“Unlike grey infrastructure, the urban forest is always changing, growing, maturing and dying,” says the report. “Canopy cover and population size are not the whole story. Urban forest size, condition and distribution are factors in the canopy cover story; pest threats, natural mortality, invasive species impacts, development activities and climate change are realities effecting urban forest sustainability.”

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Jim Adair

Jim Adair has been writing about Canadian real estate, home building and renovation issues for more than 40 years. He is the former editor of Canada’s leading trade magazine for real estate professionals, as well as several home building, décor and renovation titles. You can contact him at [email protected]

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