A White Rock man is considering legal action after returning home last week to find an “absolutely perfect” Douglas fir on his property damaged by excavation.
“They dug three feet into the base of that tree, which means they have basically wiped out all the feeder roots,” Barry Belec said as he surveyed the aftermath.
“This whole thing is tragic. Every arbourist that’s ever looked at it has said… it’s as close as possible to a perfect specimen.”
The tree stands on the edge of Belec’s Buena Vista Avenue property. About 130 feet tall and more than a century old, its trunk abuts a fence marking the property line.
It is also among four on the Buena Vista Avenue property that Belec has asked the city to consider for heritage status.
Belec said he discovered the damage around 12:30 p.m. May 31. While the City of White Rock’s arbourist attended the site that day, director of operations Rob Thompson said the matter is a civil one.
“We don’t have any authority to be involved,” Thompson said Thursday, noting the tree does not fall under the jurisdiction of the tree bylaw.
However, the city’s position would be different, Thompson confirmed, if the tree in question had heritage designation.
“It becomes a protected tree,” he said, citing fines and penalties of up to $10,000 outlined in the city’s tree bylaw for damage to, or removal of, protected trees.
But while the City of White Rock has had a heritage-tree policy on the books for more than a decade, there has yet to be a single tree in the city protected by it.
A heritage-tree policy was adopted in September 2000. Coun. Helen Fathers said she discovered about a month ago that there were no trees protected by it.
“I was shocked,” Fathers said of the revelation. “For it to be in place for 11 years (and have no trees registered), I don’t understand that.”
In discussing the issue last month with members of the city’s environment committee, Fathers encouraged the group to recommend to council that the process of registering trees get underway.
The recommendation was on council’s agenda May 30, along with others related to the city’s policy for trees on public land. However, rather than discuss them, council voted to refer all of the recommendations to staff who are reviewing Policy 611.
Last week’s request for action on heritage trees was not the first time the city has been asked to move on the policy.
According to minutes of 2008 environment committee meetings, a lack of identified heritage trees was noted. The city’s 2008 Environmental Strategic Plan lists creating an inventory of valued and heritage trees in the city, aimed at protecting and enhancing tree canopy.
Belec, a former member of the environment committee, said one of his last acts in 2002 was to submit a list of 36 trees for heritage consideration.
Belec said he was surprised to learn last month that no one at city hall knows of the list.
Thompson, hired by the city a year ago, said council asked his department to bring the heritage-designation process forward. The motion asked that six trees – elms on Elm Street, oaks on the White Rock Elementary site, ivy trees at Five Corners and an eagles-nest tree on Marine Drive – be placed on the registry.
A draft of the updated policy is expected by council this month.
Thompson said he, too, was surprised to learn the city has no designated trees after more than 10 years with a heritage policy. He speculated shifts in focus over the years may have played a role, along with high staff turnover.
“If (Belec) submitted it personally to somebody and they didn’t do anything with it, we have no way of finding it,” he said.
Thompson noted simply submitting a list wouldn’t guarantee protection. Each tree would be evaluated based on the policy, which currently identifies cultural and historical significance and whether the tree is a landmark as among factors to consider.
Thompson described the process of designating heritage trees as “a worthwhile endeavour.”
“Trees are an emotional issue,” he said. “They are a visual and historical element of the city. In some ways, they are the continuity of the city.”
Belec said his damaged tree was among those originally planted on the property that once lined a driveway that stretched to Thrift Avenue. Now, he’s worried the excavation work could affect its integrity long-term.
“This is very sad for me,” Belec said. “This feels like the most horrific molestation and violation of my home and my property.”