Review of Tree Bylaw Implementation: City of Vancouver Tree Bylaw No. 9958

What is a ‘protected’ tree?

This is an interesting question because there are many different answers, depending on the tolerance for development in a municipality. Every definition is deliberately tailored to what actors in the development process, i.e., arborists, residents and builders, can reasonably afford to account for—whether it be affordance of time and/or money.

For instance, a developer with plans to build a townhouse community may have 300 or so trees on their lots before construction. The ‘protected’ tree size is deliberately 30 cm in diameter so there is some time-saving leeway for development in terms of tree cutting permit application and cost. There is also so many trees consulting arborists and city arborists can assess and account for in the development market. Every tree in this 300-odd stand does not matter for convenience sake. If we acknowledged every tree, and designed with tree retention at the forefront, the building plans may take longer and likely not meet profit demands for densification.

The push for density in how we build and live, to accommodate unprecedented population
growth and urbanization, is pushing urban trees out. Mature trees are especially difficult to retain in urban settings and active construction—they are often just considered liabilities by builders and property owners. Due to densification in urban development, tree retention on sites is commonly piecemealed around large trees on small islands of original grade. Qualified professionals (i.e., arborists) protect the tree islands with high-visibility fences around approximate root zones. However, the changes in grade around the islands, changes in water circulation, wind dynamics, and impacts to root zones outside of the fenced islands affect tree retainability as well.

Swaths and/or clusters of younger, ‘undersized’ trees (not ‘protected’ size) are often passed up for retention because the builders are free to cut down any trees under the ‘protected’ tree size. There is also incentive to not save trees in large sections of the development lots because the developable footprint on each site is maximized for density and realty profits. Although individual small trees and/or groups of smaller trees can have better chance of survival during and after construction. There is not enough incentive to save enough trees or the ‘right’ trees.

The ‘protected’ trees are not exactly protected either. It just means you have to apply and pay to cut them down with an arborist assessment. Developers may be compelled by a city arborist to save certain trees. However, its common for trees to come down regardless or illegally. The lack of penalties, and reliance on fines for bylaw compliance, breeds an easier-to-ask-for forgiveness-than-permission’ attitude among taxpayers and especially development corporations. The profits on most projects dwarfs the tree felling bill and associated fines. Stop-work orders may be more effective at conjuring compliance on larger development sites for this reason.

Protected trees should be inventoried and designed for ahead, or in tandem, with building planning so there is a greater retention possibility – this would add meaning to the word ‘protected tree’. The arborist consultants should be a part of the development team in the planning stage. When tree preservation programs are developed, they should become a part of subcontractors’ contracts to aid adherence and keep everyone on the same page. For best results, open lines of communication between the builders, subcontractors, and arborist consultants must be established early on in the project so everyone knows the tree preservation program and legal requirements prior to work. Inclusion of arboriculture in the planning stage, a more generous definition of ‘protected’ tree in bylaw, and normalization of stop-work orders could net greater and higher quality tree retention. These goals ought to be the purpose of a tree protection bylaw for any municipality.