Participants at the city's planning and transportation committee meeting this week got a taste of what happens when a city neglects its precious urban forest.
It came from the mouth of a former tree service employee in a discussion about extending the old city of Toronto bylaw protecting healthy trees across the burbs.
The tree man, Todd Irvine, recalled cutting down four 120-year-old sugar maples - "the maple tree that's on our flag" - for no other reason than "two people wanted to be able to see the CN Tower when they drank their coffee on their patio in Hogg's Hollow.
"I'm not proud of what I did," said the certified arborist who's now a member of the Toronto Public Space Committee. But, he added, such mindless destruction of the city's endangered tree canopy "happened all the time" before the pre-amalgamation city of Toronto introduced a controversial bylaw preventing private property owners from felling healthy trees with a trunk diameter of more than 30 centimetres at a height of 1.4 metres above the ground.
And such restrictions could soon be in effect across the six-year-old megacity if council goes along with the planning and transportation committee's unanimous endorsement Tuesday (September 7) of a harmonized bylaw that will provide private tree protection to Etobicoke, North York, East York, York and Scarborough.
"It's a milestone decision for this council. It needs to be done," Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone said of the proposed regulations that will levy fines of up to $10,000 against people convicted of a first offence and as much as $20,000 for subsequent convictions. The penalties will be five times higher for corporate real estate developers who ignore the bylaw.
"We are in a crisis in terms of quality of life in this city," added Pantalone, who also happens to be Toronto's tree advocate. "The quality of life is deteriorating. We can either move forward or stand still and go backward."
In spite of warnings from some Etobicoke and Scarborough councillors that there would be strong citizen opposition to the proposed bylaw's supposed infringement on private property rights, the 10 members of the public who did make presentations to the committee enthusiastically supported the move. The bylaw will require property owners to pay a $100 permit fee just to have city forestry staff determine whether there is a legitimate reason to have a tree removed.
The estimated $338,000 in annual revenues will help the city hire seven additional staff to perform inspections and enforce the bylaw.
"I think the fees in the bylaw are just fine," said Shelley Petrie, a spokesperson for the Toronto Environmental Alliance. She maintained that the proportion of the city covered by its tree canopy has actually declined from 22 to 18 per cent in recent years, when the city has a target of 35 per cent.
Irvine noted that the proposed $100 permit fee is a pittance, considering it can cost from $750 to $6,000 for professional removal of a mature tree.
I certainly wish I'd hired a pro to prune the leafy monster in my backyard. My recent attempt to do the job myself ended when a falling branch struck me on the side of the head, knocked me off a borrowed extension ladder and onto the concrete patio 5 metres below.
Thankfully, the paramedics arrived quickly and got me to hospital, where I spent five days connected to a morphine drip while an orthopedic surgeon determined I'd suffered a compression fracture to the lower spine. I suspect the back brace I'll be wearing for the next few month cost more on its own than the money I would have spent to hire a professional tree service.
By the way, I would not have been violating the new bylaw. It won't require a permit for the "pruning of a tree in accordance with good arboricultural practice to maintain tree health." Ditto for the removal of diseased, dead or hazardous trees and the pruning of tree branches that interfere with utility conductors.
Furthermore, the new bylaw will not banish chain saws from the vicinity of mature trees in all circumstances. The commissioner of economic development, culture and tourism is authorized to issue permits where "trees are causing or are likely to cause structural damage to load-bearing structures or roof structures."
The same goes for trees that are "in poor condition and cannot be maintained in a healthy" state or if their removal is necessary to remediate contaminated soil. Even developers will be able to take down mature trunks in some circumstances, provided they're prepared to plant replacement trees or make a cash payment equal to "120 per cent of the cost of replanting and maintaining the trees for a period of two years."
But none of this is good enough for Doug Holyday, the Ward 3 (Etobicoke Centre) councillor who was among the majority on the Etobicoke-York community council who voted against the bylaw earlier this year.
As far as Holyday is concerned, the city's urban forest is getting leafier and leafier all the time. "Anywhere in the city I go, I see more and bigger trees - not less," he told the planning and transportation committee.
The right-wing Etobicoan disagreed with Councillor Howard Moscoe's contention that "cutting down a mature tree is an act of urban aggression, an assault on the community." And he was none too impressed with bylaw supporters' arguments about the relationship between fewer trees, endangered watersheds and unhealthy air.
Holyday accused the committee of creating a new bureaucracy "to deal with a problem that doesn't exist."
He gave his personal recommendation for making a real improvement in Toronto's air quality: "Let's get rid of all the unnecessary, unwarranted stop signs we have out there, the four-way stops and some of the traffic signal lights," he suggested.
"All they're doing is making cars stop, and every time you stop those cars - thousands and thousands and thousands of times in a day - you're polluting the air."
Get rid of the stop signs and the traffic lights and it's problem's solved, without the need for some silly tree bylaw. "It can be done," Holyday claimed.
Fortunately for Toronto trees, members of council's planning and transpotation committee were not convinced.