Richmond Hill's Tree Experience

Issue: 
January-February 2008

THE TOWN OF RICHMOND HILL is located in the Region of York just north of Toronto with the north third of the town on the Oak Ridges Moraine. Yonge Street is the main thoroughfare, Highway 404 is our east boundary, Bathurst Street is on the west, Highway 407 is to the south and Bloomington Road is the north boundary. We have experienced quite a bit of growth since 1984 when the population was approximately 39,000. In 2007, we were at about 183,000 residents. Over the last several years, there has been increased resident awareness about private tree bylaws resulting from the City of Toronto’s Private Tree Bylaw and the movement of some residents to Richmond Hill with the belief that such a bylaw existed outside of Toronto.

Previous Tree Protection Options
Instead of a private tree bylaw, the Town of Richmond Hill had three options to protect existing trees through the development process:

1. Committee of Adjustment. Condition of Severance on severed lands for the applicant to sign an agreement to protect trees up to and including the building permit stage. This was effective for vacant lots created from an existing residence as it deterred the clear cutting of the lot in anticipation of property sale.

2. Site Plan Conditions. As applicable where existing trees could be incorporated in the site works/landscape plan with noted tree protection details. This was effective to identify significant trees that engineers could design grades and layouts to help retain the trees. Letters of credit could be part of the securities for new landscaping/tree protection.

3. Subdivision Conditions. Identification of existing trees and review design of the subdivision layout/servicing to minimize impacts on identified significant trees on applicant lands. Details provided by the developer’s consultant with recognition of the tree preservation details/documentation in the subdivision agreement on the tree preservation program. Securities under the engineering component.

Conservation Easements
These initially were designed to retain trees and landforms where there were hedgerows and/or buffer areas to woodlots/ravines to help minimize homeowner impacts on the lands under the easement agreement. Conservation easements were registered on title as part of the subdivision process.

As the conservation easement process was reviewed, it was identified that hedgerows entirely on private property under easement had limitations of access to check to see if the Conservation Easement Agreement conditions were being followed. Therefore a report to town council was written to change the criteria related to the conditions under which the Conservation Easement Agreements were to be taken through the subdivision development process. The change in parameters was to place conservation easements only over private lands where there is public access to monitor the activities of the homeowners as it related to the conservation agreements.

As the subdivision application process can take anywhere from two to five years or longer, there was one particular subdivision application which was part way though the process when the policy was changed. An existing well established subdivision, approximately 20 years-old, had a new subdivision abut it with a mature hedgerow in between on private lands.

A tone of respect for the hedgerow was evident at the initial stages of the subdivision application – there would be a conservation easement over the lands of the new subdivision which the existing homes had been benefiting from since their subdivision was complete some years ago. When the new subdivision construction was complete and new residents in the moved in, some decided to “tidy up” the hedgerow. This attracted the attention of existing residents who shared the hedgerow. Subsequently, it was determined that the new policy respecting the conservation easement was only applied to private lands adjacent to open space and park land, somewhat different to previous understanding by the existing residents, resulting from the change in conservation easement policy.

The Need for a Bylaw Evident
None of the above were very effective in preventing a property owner/developer from removing trees from a lot before submitting an application if it was an area not affected by the York Region Forest Conservation Bylaw.

This was a contributing factor that led town council to request staff to review the options available related to the protection of trees on private property.

The results were the creation of an Interdepartmental Committee headed by the Parks, Recreation and Culture Department to review the existing status of private tree protection in Ontario including the emerging trends in the types of tree protection, i.e. Forest Conservation Bylaws or Single Tree Protection Bylaws or variations on both.

The committee’s job was to review the role various departments play in the development process as it relates to tree protection and suggest changes as part of a comprehensive program to raise the profile of trees in both the residents and developers’ eyes.

This process was started under the previous version of the Municipal Act and was implemented under the December 2006 version of the Act. In my understanding, public consultation is an option for the municipality when it relates to matters of this nature. Therefore municipalities have the option, depending on the sense of staff, on how to proceed. Based on the growing interest in tree protection over the last decade, it was determined that residents were accepting of some conditions related to tree protection as part of the bigger environmental movement and our responsibility for the environment.

Staff had two approaches on the matter of private trees. The first involved an internal review mechanism to elevate the trees in importance by requesting tree information as part of the initial subdivision application and escalating the issues of trees as part of staff review.

The other approach considered the impacts of a private tree bylaw on existing residents and how it would be best for the community to address issues of tree removal when needed.

As part of the process, Richmond Hill Town Council input was critical and staff invited them to a council workshop to present information related to the Private Tree Bylaw. Responses were taken and incorporated into the draft bylaw.

A sub-committee was struck to prepare the public roll out of the Private Tree Bylaw as part of a greater environmental initiative which included several existing programs that were part of the environmental strategy being developed by the town.

Workshops with both Parks staff and Municipal Bylaw officers were held to convey a similar approach and determined the role of each staff member when it came to application review, bylaw enforcement, as well as the needed legal aspects related to the Private Tree Bylaw.

Bylaw Highlights
• It affects single trees across the entire municipality, minimum 20 cm DBH.
• The application fee is $150 for the first tree with subsequent trees on the same application $50 each to a maximum of $400 as Council has been moving towards cost recovery. This could cover the site visit of the inspector to verify the information.
• The bylaw does not conflict with The Region of York Forest Conservation Bylaw.
• It allows for removal of trees affected by the Property Standards Bylaw with evidence to substantiate a dead or structurally unsound tree (with no application fee in this instance).

The Private Tree Bylaw had an echo effect on the existing Street Tree Bylaw that was passed originally in 1975 with several amendments in subsequent years. The Street Tree Bylaw was rewritten to define a publicly owned tree to help clarify the placement of a tree where greater than 50% co-ownership existed.
Other bylaws reviewed were the existing Parks Bylaw and the Fill Bylaw (Site Alteration) which are under review now or will be at a later date.

The public roll out included a media blitz, emails to commercial tree companies local to the area, highlights on the town’s website, bookmarks, posters, booths at community events and other environmental venues.
The number of applications for permits from the bylaw enactment date of March 19, 2007 to the end of November 2007 was 61, and there were a further 52 requests for exemptions from the permit. The number of approved applications were 59, although several of these allowed only a reduced number of removals.

Bylaw Challenges
• The volume of applications and requests for exemptions was higher than anticipated.
• The number of inquiries about the new bylaw was also higher than anticipated (over 400 by phone, email and in person). Many of these calls can take some time to “walk” people through the process.
• A few (but far less than expected) residents who did not see what right the Town has to tell them what they can or can’t do with their trees and charge them for the privilege. This is particularly difficult for those few residents who have lived on their land for decades or even generations and who own larger properties with a lot of trees. many of which they planted themselves. These people are now on a fixed income and feel penalized financially.

Bylaw Benefits
• There is an increased awareness by other departments within the Town of the importance of trees and planning for tree retention early in the development process.
• The majority of resident responses (anecdotally) are “at last.”
• Bylaw enforcement is a comparatively simple method of dealing with unauthorized removals or damage to trees.
• There exists a greater authority to require consideration of alternative designs when negotiating with developers.

As Richmond Hill now has a larger component of younger trees resulting from rapid development, the Private Tree Bylaw and other environmental initiatives in the long term will help retain the urban forest. In time, it will raise the awareness of the importance of private trees in the greater community and the care trees need like other parts of the home landscape.

We are thankful of the efforts of the City of Toronto, Region of York, and Ministry of Natural Resources staff who were instrumental in providing insight into the benefits and challenges they had respecting the private tree protection bylaws in the various levels of government.

Our mission is to enhance and promote the care and benefit of trees for present and future generations in Ontario through education, research and awareness.