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Tree trouble: New West residents distressed by rapid tree growth

A growing problem: New Westminster grapples with fast-growing trees on waterfront esplanade

Three trees planted on New Westminster’s waterfront continue to pose problems for some Quayside residents as they’ve had “more vigorous” growth than originally anticipated.

The issue took root back in 2007, when the city planted an eastern yellowwood, a black tupelo and a western yellowwood on a grassy section of city-owned land directly in front of the Dockside building at 12 K de K Crt. From the get-go, Dockside residents expressed concerns about the trees’ impact on their waterfront views – concerns that have only grown as the trees increase in height and width, despite a ramped-up pruning regime by the parks and recreation department.

“When fully leafed-out, the canopies of these two trees largely obscure any view through the trees and very little light penetrates through the canopy,” said an Aug. 28 report to council. “Finally, as the width of the tree canopies has increased over the years, so too have the view corridors between the trees gradually narrowed.”

According to the Dockside strata, an assessment by an arborist projects the eastern yellowwood (which currently has a width of 24 feet) will expand to 32 feet by 2033 and the black tupelo will increase from today’s 21 feet to 45 feet. The western yellowwood, currently having a 33.6 feet width, will grow to 54-feet wide.

At the time the trees were planted, they weren’t expected to grow to the size they are today or will reach in the future.

“The information that was available to us, that we conveyed to the residents, portrayed that the trees would be slow-growing and be of a lesser stature, so smaller than they are proving out to be today,” said Dean Gibson, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

In 2016, residents asked the city to remove the trees fronting their properties, saying they were growing were projected to be nearly double in size what the city had forecast in 2007. After further research and discussion, council directed staff to thoroughly prune the three trees and increase the tree-pruning cycle to once every three years.

Residents concerned

Zachary Croxen, president of the Dockside strata council, said the strata previously set aside its demand for tree removal in order to give the city an opportunity to rectify the situation.

“We recognize and support the city's overall approach to increasing the tree canopy in the city, but we find it distressing that the city staff recommends that the city do nothing more to fix the situation, given the city's previous commitments,” he said. “And we trusted your commitment to resolving this significant and long-running issue for Dockside residents.”

Given that the city’s pruning efforts “have failed to reopen the view lanes, have failed to maintain light penetration or manage the trees widths” within a three-year pruning schedule, Croxen said residents find it “puzzling” that staff are now recommending the city revert to a seven-year pruning schedule.

“Transplanting or replacing the trees is feasible, as is an alternative pruning plan to mitigate the negative impact of the trees, if retained,” he told council. “In light of the overwhelming evidence and unanimous agreement on the failure of the current strategy, the next logical step is clear: tree removal. The council's previous decisions to remove the trees was justified in 2007, reaffirmed in 2017 and remains the right choice today.”

If the trees are removed, Croxen said residents are happy to work with the city to find more suitable trees that could be planted.

As for the recommended three-year pruning schedule being recommended for these trees, the staff report explained the tree-pruning program “has not been successful” in achieving all of its intended outcomes and noted the pruning of the trees in front of the building has not changed the overall diameter of the trees. It said a three-year pruning schedule is not sustainable with current staffing resources.

Gibson said a seven-year pruning cycle is considered a best practice in the industry for maintaining trees.

“We have concluded that, even at a three-year pruning cycle, it appears to be inevitable that in a period of time those trees will continue to grow in size … Maintaining the current cycle will prolong the period of time to which we will get to that point, but there will be some point where the trees will continue to be larger than they are today,” he said.

The report included several options for council’s consideration, including maintaining the current three-year pruning cycle and reverting to the city’s seven-year tree-maintenance standard. Other options included returning to a three-year pruning schedule and removing two or more of the trees and replacing – or not replacing – those trees with new trees.

No decision yet

At the Aug. 28 meeting, council considered a staff recommendation to revert the current three-year esplanade boulevard tree maintenance cycle back to the seven-year cycle, as applied to street and boulevard trees in other areas of the city.

Since the trees were planted, the City of New Westminster has adopted an urban forest management strategy and Seven Bold Steps for Climate Action, with both policies highlighting the need to expand the city’s urban forest as a means of supporting a healthy environment and increasing the city’s resilience in extreme heat events.

In its report to council, staff said the “only practical means” to address the strata’s wishes is through the removal of “the most problematic and impactful trees” and replacement with trees that are better suited to the residents’ priorities. This approach, said staff, isn’t compatible with the city’s urban forest management strategy.

“We're living in climate emergency,” she said. Coun. Ruby Campbell, who doesn’t support removal of the trees.

Coun. Tasha Henderson said it feels “a bit uncomfortable” to be talking about removing large, mature trees on public lands – “for the whole purpose of restoring a view corridor” – when a huge swath of the province's forests are on fire. She said these trees likely provide shade and canopy during extreme weather events.

“Not all trees are successful growing in the city, and we see that as we try to plant trees in public spaces, and not all can thrive,” she said. “So when the ones that do thrive are successful, it's a funny feeling to be not celebrating that. … I feel strongly about maintaining and growing our urban forest canopy.”

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said trees are one of the city’s key steps to addressing the climate crisis.

“We have been planting so many trees in our community in public parks and along boulevards, and we need those trees to survive,” she said. “This is … critical to survival in this changing climate.”

Nakagawa said council’s responsibility is to make decisions for the entire city and to have a global view of tree planting and maintenance. She said that choosing to commit more resources to maintaining these trees means it would have fewer resources for other trees.

“In over-prioritizing some neighbourhoods, we then are deciding to under-prioritize other neighbourhoods; I'm not willing to do that,” she said.

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said all members of city council are concerned about climate change and support planting more trees, but they needs to honour commitments made to Dockside residents.

“I want to put this debate into perspective. We're talking three trees. We are not going to stop climate change because we keep three trees. Let's be real about this, folks,” he said. “This is about a commitment to our community and our word, as governors of the city. When we tell people we're going to do something and we say we're going to do it, we should do it.”

Fontaine said the city routinely allows mature, healthy trees to be cut down for a variety of reasons, such as development and conflicts with electrical wires.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said the issue before council is not only about trees and residents’ desire to retain their waterfront views, but about the integrity of the city process. Rather than supporting a recommendation calling for a seven-year pruning cycle for these trees, McEvoy said he’d prefer to have staff continue to work with Dockside residents to try to find an acceptable solution.

In a 5-2 vote, council approved a motion to refer the matter back to staff, with councillors Nakagawa and Henderson voting in opposition.

Gibson said staff will report back to council on the issue this fall.


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