Saanich tree protection bylaw unfair, say homebuilders

Saanich has drafted strict bylaws to stem the loss of tree canopy across the municipality

Saanich has drafted strict bylaws to stem the loss of tree canopy across the municipality, but property developers argue proposed new rules unfairly punish the owners of new homes.

Victoria Home Builders Association said the proposed Saanich bylaw lets farmland off the hook in terms of tree removal, and disproportionately offloads the burden of tree replacement to new development.

The current Saanich bylaws allow urban property owners to remove trees with few limitations. Proposed amendments calls for expanded rules for protected tree species, replacement of any protected tree removed for a building project, and requiring two replacement trees for tree removal outside the building envelope.

“Homebuyers are paying two-for-one not just for trees to be removed … there is also a planning process, surveys, arborists, fees coming out to thousands of dollars,” said Casey Edge, executive director of the VHBA. “The critical issue is policy, and policy that fundamentally offsets the cost of protecting the tree canopy to new homebuyers is unfair.”

A survey of Saanich released earlier this year revealed the municipality lost 276 hectares of tree cover between 2005 and 2009, and gained 225 ha in buildings and pavement. A similar broader study released by Habitat Acquisition Trust in July demonstrated Saanich lost 585 ha of tree canopy (5.5 per cent) between 1986 and 2011.

Edge suggested that changes in 2007 to how farmland was assessed and taxed contributed to canopy loss in Saanich, and that the proposed tree preservation bylaw does little to make farmers accountable to preserving trees.

Edge is proposing Saanich figure out a way to spread the cost, either through taxes or “tree credits” for planting trees on private land that offsets losses elsewhere.

“There is a clear tax benefit to put land into agricultural production. To do that you have to remove trees, but there is no cost to removing trees,” Edge said. “I don’t deny housing has been a factor in the decline of the tree canopy, but there are other contributors.”

Proposed tree protection amendments for rural and farm property in Saanich will be similar for urban properties – two trees gained for one lost when building driveways, a new permit regime and the requirement of replacement trees above a certain threshold. Currently, rural property owners and farmers can cut three trees per acre per year without a permit and no replacement trees are required.

For land in the provincial agricultural land reserve, farmers wanting to clear trees to create more farmland currently need to file an affidavit with Saanich to ensure the land is used for agriculture.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said he’s hearing plenty of concerns on how the tree protection bylaw could impact homeowners. The bylaw remains in a draft phase, he stressed, and will take into account feedback from the community.

“I’ve heard from (VHBA) and I’ve heard from individual homebuilders and homeowners as well,” Leonard said. “On the flip side, we have the tree inventory study and people are upset about losing the tree canopy.

“I’m keeping an open mind. Staff is still getting input on the draft bylaw. It hasn’t been taken to committee or council. It’s too soon to take a position.”

Leonard himself co-chaired the provincial Farm Assessment Review Panel in 2009, which helped rewrite rules that had initially created a tax incentive for farmers to cut down trees.

“Ten years ago I did hear that (farmers cut trees) in the Oldfield area and Prospect Lake,” Leonard said. “Politically it’s ancient history of people clearing land for farm assessments. The review panel took away a lot of that stress.”

Adam Taylor, executive director of Habitat Acquisition Trust, said the regional tree canopy study showed a tight correlation between tree loss in urban areas and the growth of roads and roofs. The data doesn’t show a disproportionate tree loss in rural areas of Saanich.

“A lot of the tree loss is in southern Saanich, in residential areas,” Taylor said. “We aren’t talking about areas within the ALR or farming properties that are being converted to impervious surfaces.”

Click the link for more information on Saanich’s tree protection bylaw.

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