An aerial survey by Habitat Acquisition Trust indicating a declining tree canopy has become an issue in our region. As in any urban environment, new housing is considered a factor.
Saanich is proposing a new tree replacement bylaw that includes requiring builders to provide two trees for each protected tree removed for site servicing. If there is no room to plant trees, they must pay into a tree fund. This new bylaw will increase fees for permits, tree surveys, arborists, etcetera, costing thousands of dollars, eventually paid by new homebuyers.
However, there are other factors contributing to a declining tree canopy.
In 2007, the B.C. Assessment Authority reassessed farm land in Saanich, requiring owners to pay higher taxes in treed portions of land not being used for agriculture.
Approximately 204 properties outside the agricultural land reserve (ALR) were reassessed, 97 homes received split classifications, and 22 were disqualified as farms.
Subsequently, Saanich received requests from landowners to clear land to qualify for the farm classification and lower their taxes.
The B.C. government made some changes to the criteria, but the lower tax rate for agriculture continues to create a financial incentive for removing trees and putting land into production.
In addition, Saanich’s new proposed bylaw does not require replacement trees or tree fund contributions from land zoned for agriculture. Clearly, this proposed bylaw and the lower tax classification create unintended consequences impacting the tree canopy.
New homebuyers have been targeted to pay for the consequences at a rate of two for one.
Targeting new homebuyers to pay for a public benefit has become common practice. It is easier to charge additional fees on developments and homes yet-to-be-built where there is less fear of backlash from existing property owners.
However, this practice may be contrary to a B.C. Supreme Court ruling indicating there are limits to using new housing as a means to pay for a public benefit. In a recent case, a resident wishing to build a new home paid an enormous sum for collecting archeological artifacts on her property as required by the B.C. government.
However, the judge ruled, “In my opinion, the arbitrator failed to consider the relevant factors in this case, such as whether it is reasonable to require the petitioner to pay more than her fair share of the costs associated with providing a public benefit, being the collection and preservation of artifacts on the site.”
It’s easy to see how this court ruling may also apply to developers, builders and new homebuyers paying for amenities providing a public benefit. Certainly the tree canopy falls squarely in the category of a public benefit for all members of the community.
The purpose of taxing the general population is to pay for amenities benefiting the public. By charging a disproportionate cost to new homebuyers, fairness is undermined and governments expose themselves and taxpayers to judgments addressing this inequity.
Also, when costs are added to the development of housing, they are passed on to the purchaser. This is true of any product manufactured for consumers. Since most consumers take out significant mortgages to pay for homes, the added costs may double over 25 years. So $5,000 may become $10,000 depending on the homebuyer’s interest rate and mortgage term.
Saanich’s proposed bylaw is under review and now is the time to achieve fair and equitable treatment for new homebuyers, farmers and residents.
The responsibility and cost of protecting the region’s tree canopy should be fairly distributed throughout the community via property taxes, tree-planting incentives and credits and other means.
Certainly the discussion presents an opportunity to establish a new approach to financing and protecting public amenities enjoyed by all.
Casey Edge is the executive director of the Victoria Home Builders Association.