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Revisions to tree protection bylaw in North Saanich face cutting criticism

Councillors to take up issue again in August after staff summarize massive public feedback
North Saanich is in the process of revising its tree protection bylaw. The proposed changes have drawn much public interest and criticism, as council heard this week during their special meeting on the matter. (Courtesy District of North Saanich)

Members of North Saanich council urged the public to remain steady but involved as revisions to its tree protection bylaw continues to unfold.

Mayor Geoff Orr quoted Bonnie Henry, asking people to “be kind, be calm, and be safe” as council discussed public feedback to the proposed changes – submissions were overwhelmingly opposed. North Saanich started this process last summer after identifying it as a strategic priority in 2019.

Staff say the draft bylaw will aim to find a balanced approach to protect the tree canopy for current and future residents in the face of climate change, while providing some flexibility.

Critics argue it would make it too difficult and costly to trim trees, with many fearing it would prevent them from topping trees to protect views.

“The changes in the bylaws will have a (minuscule) effect on the environment but a major effect on many of the taxpaying residents of North Saanich,” wrote Clyde and Gail Bogle, who called for “saner heads” to prevail. “At a minimum the by-law should include a provision for the topping and maintenance of trees for property enjoyment and market value purposes.”

“If passed, its existence would threaten the quality of life we enjoy both today and tomorrow,” said David Balaban. “Our collective property values, of which we all paid a premium, would plummet, thus eroding a major financial investment, our residence.”

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Staff have said the existing bylaw already prohibits topping trees for views given it is considered damage. That would not change under the revisions, which aim to provide “a clearer definition of what is and is not sound arboricultural practice or damage,” said North Saanich planner Carly Rimell.

This unmarked sign posted on Barrett Drive in North Saanich’s Dean Park neighbourhood argues that proposed revisions to North Saanich’s tree protection bylaw will rob residents of their views, a perspective challenged by councillors and staff. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Other critics fear the revisions would raise the risk of wildfires.

Council had planned to discuss the feedback on June 7, but scheduled a special meeting for June 14 to deal with the issue. The move pointed to the level of public interest and controversy, generated since the district hired Vancouver-based Diamond Head Consulting last year to undertake work on the revision process.

One measure of this interest is the 677 survey submissions the municipality has received on the issue since a virtual presentation last month.

The controversy has seen one writer apologize to staff for getting people “pretty riled up.” Unmarked flyers have also been posted in the Dean Park neighbourhood.

“The bylaw is written for the trees, not the people who live here,” reads the flyer. “It needs to change to protect trees and still respect you as a resident.”

According to Orr, Dean Park accounted for 83 per cent of the submissions received.

Coun. Patricia Pearson said the bylaw may be difficult to digest, but she challenged the perception that council is trying to push through changes behind the public’s back.

“You are finding out now, because we want you to find out now,” she said. “While it has been fairly volatile, I would say for the last few weeks, people have been engaged and listening and I would encourage everyone to continue to follow up.”

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Coun. Celia Stock reminded the public that North Saanich is revising its bylaw for the first time since 2007 after concerns about clear-cutting on Towner Park Road and Lands End Road.

Stock said staff are taking all feedback seriously, adding that council has not yet formally seen the draft bylaw. “And … we are not trying to tell (the public) they can’t trim their hedges or cut down huge trees that are interfering with their garden or their views,” she said. “This is not the intent of the new bylaw.”

Staff will present council with a summary report of the feedback on Aug. 16. While the public heard that staff will not revise the draft bylaw, they will ask council for additional direction.

While several submissions questioned the suitability of Diamond Consulting, implying it is unfamiliar with conditions in North Saanich and is trying to impose outside values, staff have defended the choice.

“Diamond Head Consulting are an award-winning consultancy and whilst they are based in Vancouver, they are very familiar with the North Saanich context,” said Brian Green, director of planning and community services, adding they have undertaken similar work for B.C. municipalities including Victoria and Central Saanich.

The company is certainly not unfamiliar with controversial subjects. Saanich under the political leadership of former mayor Richard Atwell had hired Diamond Head Consulting to review its now repealed Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA).

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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