COLUMN: Cost of cutting down trees

Developers using funds to get around tree-retention policy

Surrey’s tree-retention policy is working – sort of – but developers and savvy landowners continue to find ways to drive logging trucks through it.

There is no question that most developers are now trying harder to preserve at least some trees on development sites. This is particularly true if the property is being developed for apartments or townhouses, as there is usually a large enough piece of land not affected by building footprints.

However, where standalone homes (theoretically known as single-family) are being built, trees are rarely retained.

In the East Clayton area, which is a poster child for a number of bad planning and development decisions in Surrey, hardly a tree that existed pre-development 10 years ago remains standing. This is despite a tree-retention bylaw that came into force in 2006.

Why? The tiny size of the lots; the fact that many homes have coach houses attached; and the unwillingness on the part of most developers who were active there to even think about tree preservation.

There are a few shining exceptions, but they are rare.

On Cloverdale’s former Bose farm, which was the focus of much public anger about tree-cutting, some trees were preserved. However, as much of the land is being developed for standalone houses, the number of trees preserved on individual lots is minimal.

Developers have figured out how to work with the bylaw and, if necessary, pay into Surrey’s green fund so they do not have to retain or replant trees.

However, there are a number of ways around the bylaw. One of the most commonly used ones is to say the land is being cleared for farm purposes. The tree-preservation bylaw does not apply to land that is to be farmed.

While this makes sense within the Agricultural Land Reserve, many hundreds of trees have been cut on properties outside the ALR that will be developed eventually.

I live near two such properties, and estimate that 100 or more mature trees were cut on these sites. Both are 10 acres in size, and on one, hardly a tree remains. The other is about 70 per cent clearcut.

No permits or replacement trees are required.

The landowners get another benefit. If they do farm these properties, as they say they will, their property tax bill will drop by about 90 per cent.

Provincial rules make the assessment authority evaluate these properties as farms, and this farm exemption drops property taxes to very low levels. The amount of agricultural activity required on such properties is minimal – $2,500 in farm sales in one year for properties between two and 10 acres in size.

Most agricultural properties in Surrey that are outside the ALR fit into this category.

Then there are landowners who simply cut trees without any regard for permits or legality. While it is hard to do this in highly trafficked areas where there are a lot of people, there are a surprising number of properties in Surrey that are off the beaten track.

The Surrey bylaw is hardest on legitimate property owners who wish to cut down one or two trees.

A recently repealed bylaw in Vancouver allowed property owners to cut one tree per year, simply by getting a basic low-cost permit. No arborists were required, which simply boosts the costs of the exercise.

Vancouver has now dispensed with this bylaw, but such an approach would make sense in Surrey. It would still keep the worst offenders at bay – if it’s possible to pinpoint them – while easing the punitive nature of the current bylaw on law-abiding citizens.

By the way, the city itself is exempt from its tree-preservation bylaw. Citizens need to be vigilant if there are any attempts to four-lane Fraser Highway through the Green Timbers, because that will require hundreds of trees that are almost 90 years old to come down.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.



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