Can a new bylaw in Abbotsford persuade people to plant more trees, rather than axe them?

More resources needed, consultant says as work on new plan begins

As work begins on reversing the decline of Abbotsford’s urban forest, those involved will face a paradox.

How, exactly, do you deter property owners from unnecessarily cutting down trees without also discouraging them from planting new ones?

A new bylaw has been on the city’s to-do list for years, and statistics have shown that Abbotsford’s tree canopy has declined considerably in recent years thanks to both winter storms and record development.

Instead of going straight to the bylaw, though, council has told staff to create a comprehensive “urban forestry strategy” to guide all city policies that relate to trees. Work on the strategy recently began and is expected to be finished by next summer. Once the strategy is finished, the city will look to create a new bylaw that will govern when and under what conditions residents can chop down trees.

The current bylaw has been called too permissive by some, including Coun. Patricia Ross. But others, including Coun. Bruce Banman, have warned against imposing too many restrictions on what property owners can do with their own land.

The first work on the strategy, though, was focused, in part, on determining just how well the city is managing its forest.

The answer: Not that great.

RELATED: Abbotsford has lost more than 7% of its tree cover since 2005

RELATED: Read the report that says more can be done to improve Abbotsford’s urban forest

A report by a consulting firm hired to develop the new strategy said the city has improved the planting of trees in streets and parks, is collecting money from developers for trees, and has knowledgeable arborists and an engaged community. But the city was found to not be exercising much control over how its trees grow.

The report also warned that, as Abbotsford’s “urban core densifies, neighbourhoods that have a lot of trees are losing them and zoning will not enable retention.”

The city has rules about tree planting and requires developers to submit their tree-cutting plans and replace, or pay to replace elsewhere, each tree axed, there is little monitoring of what actually takes place.

The report says the city lacks resources to review developers’ tree plans and ensure that builders are doing what they said they would. Because there is no “development arborist” on staff, there is little oversight of whether Abbotsford’s tree protection requirements are being followed, and the city has also had to reduce the number of trees it plants in public areas, because it doesn’t have the resources necessary to maintain them.

Planting on public land may increase in importance because as its inner core densifies, many areas have less room for trees. As land values increase, lots are subdivided, and yards shrink, so too does the space for trees. A recent Metro Vancouver study found that tree cover in neighbourhoods with single-family homes are no longer any greener than areas with apartments and townouses.

So figuring out how to boost the city’s tree cover will be a challenge.

Banman said creating new rules will be like walking a “tight rope” and that a “holistic” solution is needed. He said trees are important, but that landowners also need the ability to remove trees that are dangerous or limiting the use of their properties.

“I think it’s very easy to say, ‘Yep, we don’t have enough trees, let’s plant a whole bunch more, but is that necessarily balancing the needs and livability of the region?”

Coun. Brenda Falk, who runs a garden centre in her private life, said the city has to find a way to eliminate barriers to tree-planting.

“I repeatedly hear the fear that ‘If I plant this, and I want to take it down and I can’t, I don’t want to take it down if it’s going to get to that size,’” Falk said. “I want [the public] to not be afraid of planting trees. I want them to be encouraged to.”

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