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How Will the Proposed City of Kawartha Lakes Tree Preservation By-Law Affect You?

December 20, 2023

Bobcaygeon's Port 32 was developed from forest on poor soils and the developers did preserve trees as best they could, given the layout. It is the kind of development that this by-law targets.

The City of Kawartha Lakes Solicits Feedback on Plan to Levy Tree Cutting Fees

History is replete with examples of overarching paradigms that have reshaped the world as they came and went. For the environment of the Kawartha Lakes region, one of the most significant was an eighteenth and nineteenth century assumption that practically all land would become farmland. As Upper Canada, later Ontario, set about parcelling off land to create a colony, it surveyed most land into farmland. Ontario would persist in creating agricultural lots well into northern Ontario, long after it became had become abundantly clear that much of the land was not really arable. It did enable the transformation of much of southern Ontario into farmland. Because of it, most of the land that could be used for agriculture was converted into farms. But it also led many immigrants, who believed the government’s claims, to take up agricultural lots where there was little hope that farming could be successful. In the context of the Kawarthas, often where soils were suitable for agriculture farms were created, some of the thinner soils were never developed, while today some marginal areas are reverting to forests.

As is often the case, this paradigm had unintended consequences. Who would have thought that a little-known surveyor, who happened to be from Fenelon Falls, would come up with many inspired ideas as he paddled the creeks and mucked through the bogs surveying farm lots, long past the point where agriculture was really viable? Many of his ideas would form the basis of the first provincial park, hence Ontario Parks.

But times have changed. Whereas many nineteenth century immigrants to the Kawarthas had settlement duties requiring them to cut down trees to create stump-strewn clearings that served as ‘roads’ and ‘farms,’ now it seems that things of have come full-circle. Presently, the City of Kawartha Lakes is soliciting public feedback on a draft by-law that will require those who remove trees from some types of private land to either plant large nursery stock, or pay corresponding fees to the municipality, which it indicates that it intends to use to plant large nursery stock itself—but the details are complicated.

To their credit, the City of Kawartha Lakes sincerely wants public feedback to understand how this will impact local residents before they make their final decision. They are encouraging everyone to fill out an online survey, or to submit feedback by email, as they do their best to get this right. So if this is going to impact you, make sure you have your say.

There are two specific environmental concerns that underpin this by-law. “It started with shoreline protection and a real interest internally in subdivision planning,” City Solicitor Robyn Carlson explains. With subdivisions, “we tend to imagine development as a clean slate and do not look at tree cover, developing as if nothing were there. A lot of subdivisions are developed where there is habitat for birds and animals. We want to develop around existing tree cover… There is a question of what will our subdivisions look like? To have people look out to a forested area—that would be an amazing improvement to the quality of the product that we are getting.” The proposed by-law is designed to target subdivision development, while trying to avoid impacting the construction of individual homes.

Under the proposed by-law private property owners will no longer be able to cut healthy, mature, non-hazardous trees in environmentally protected areas. “There was a gap in the Conservation Authority’s ability to protect trees that grow in wetlands,” which Carlson noted that the City wanted to help fill. “You cannot get a building permit there, but you could build a driveway.” Under this by-law that will no longer be possible.

Now for the complicated details: For other private properties, the by-law establishes a permit process and fees to cut down healthy trees, that are not invasive species, or a hazard to structures or septic systems. The fee only applies to trees that are larger than 5 inches in diameter, measured 4.5 feet off the ground. If the property is smaller than 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres), the bylaw only applies to properties that are within 30 metres (98.4 feet) of shoreline, and cutting a tree will cost $425. Instead of paying the fee, the property owner can instead choose to plant a mature sapling, (a deciduous tree of a minimum of 6 feet in height and minimum 70 mm in caliper or coniferous trees of a minimum of 8 feet in height.) The $425 fee reflects the cost of buying one of these trees from a nursery. Many trees of this size come in wire baskets and require an excavator or backhoe to plant. For properties larger than 0.5 hectares, the fee is $1700, unless four mature saplings are planted. The City is considering increasing the 0.5 hectare threshold, so it does not capture larger residential lots. It will require an application, and at present there is about a two year wait for planning applications.

“We are not targeting the removal of all trees,” Carlson says. “You do not need a permit for immature trees, or those damaged in a windstorm. There are many exemptions.” There are exemptions for trees that need to be cut down to perform repair work on shorelines, or for wood fuel cut to heat your own home. Also for forestry activities “undertaken under a licence issued under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, 1994.” Also for aggregate extraction, golf courses, cemeteries, utilities, and agriculture. For farmers, all lots that they use for agriculture that are zoned agricultural are included, not just the ones that they own. “It’s Swiss Cheese!,” asserts one critic. “And it’s a hallmark of terrible policy when there is a long list of exemptions. It’s a sign that there might be something wrong with policy itself.”

The exemptions are complex too. For forestry, there is an exemption for operations that have a licence under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, but not for smaller, less formal businesses. Will this be the end for small enterprises that make a little bit of firewood for sale, or cut a few trees to mill into lumber? Will this mean that woodworkers will have to pay a permit fee to cut a tree to make a live edge counter or turn burls into bowls? “The intent is not to kill people’s way of life or interfere with their economic interests,” Carlson observes. “I encourage them to come talk to me. Is the exemption the right exemption?” A local homeowner asks, “Is this going to force people to plea for exemptions?” The City does sincerely encourage suggestions for amendment or improvement.

When it comes to development, there is an exemption for affordable housing developments. The 0.5 hectare threshold (perhaps to be enlarged) was intended to exempt the development of single houses, but capture new subdivisions. An environmentalist says, “From an environmental perspective, I do not see how a 50-house subdivision is worse than 50 people separately building a home.” Is there an environmental reason why the City is targeting subdivision developers, while giving the construction of single homes an exemption?

The owner of a local business related to the construction trade remarks, “developers are not going to absorb these costs, the home owner is. This is just making the cost of living more expensive for everybody. When the cost of building that house in the subdivision becomes more expensive, it makes other properties inflate too. One reason that housing is so expensive is that there is all this red tape that is misapplied.”

“That is probably the most common feedback,” Carlson explains. “Maybe 5 years ago when this process started, tree cover was more of a priority. Maybe we need to look at some tweaks so we are not going to capture individual homeowners—perhaps increasing the minimum lot size would help. There are people who say that it is too much, ‘I don’t care how good the tree cover is.’ That is an important message too. Maybe it does not represent the interests of the majority. We are hearing a lot of that: We do not need more fees.”

There are exemptions for low income households—defined as Bachelor Unit, $16,500; One Bedroom Unit $20,400; Two bedroom unit $24,300; Three bedroom unit $27,000; Four bedroom or more unit $25,700.” Can someone who earns $17,000 annually afford to pay $1,700 per tree for permits? “Those numbers are so low,” Carlson replies. “That is another area I would like to revisit. We need higher numbers for it to make sense.”

With so many exemptions, it is easy to start asking, why there should not be one or ten more. Why should a trailer park have to apply for permits to cut down trees, but not individual homeowners? Is that going to be one more cost that they will have to pass along? One business owner comments, “Trailer Parks are really going to get hit. They bring a lot of people into the area, they bring a lot of money to the community, why hit them?” One local resident asserts, “this is just picking on poor people. The folks at the golf course or building their million-dollar dream home get an exemption.”

Interestingly, this environmental protection by-law provides an exemption for many types of development, including gravel pits, large-scale commercial tree harvesting, agriculture and golf courses, but not nature reserves or hiking trails. One effect of this proposed by-law, is that at $1,700 per tree, creating a hiking trail through a large forested area will become prohibitively expensive. “I believe the Conservation Authority is exempt,” Carlson says. But the private development of a nature reserve would not be exempt. “There are ways of doing it without cutting down mature healthy trees.” How do you make a trail through a forest without disturbing the trees? There are several regional examples of nature areas that started out privately, have become public and today they are much appreciated by their visitors. “If they want to promote tree cover, nature areas are a great way to turn it into something fun,” says one hiking enthusiast.

“It is just silly,” remarks one local homeowner. “This could bring out the worst in people. It’s hard to understand. So, when they see tree cutting, they call by-law to complain. It encourages tattling. I am afraid that it is going to create conflict and community unrest. The other problem is that people don’t understand all the exemptions and loopholes, and they think it is going to apply to them when it isn’t. One of my neighbours was already worried about a dead branch on their tree, and when they see that the City is going to bring this in, they decide that they have to cut it down right now! They live in town, the by-law was not going to apply to them, but people jump to conclusions that are unnecessary.”

On the other hand, forests are important habitat for a lot of species. “The biggest concern for me,” remarks one naturalist, “is clearcutting. I believe that we need to keep our trees for the environment and for oxygen. Before anything is cut, permission should have to be given. For instance, that great tree at the Mackenzie Mansion in Kirkfield or the trees on Victoria Avenue in Lindsay. It would be a travesty if they were cut. There are a lot of trees that are important for deer and wildlife. On one lot that was being cleared there was an eagle’s nest there. There should be an assessment done before any cutting takes place.”

 “What I am concerned about,” confides a tree planting enthusiast, “is that this by-law turns trees into a liability. I love to reforest using small trees, but I don’t have the soil to plant big ones. But as I plant trees all over my property, sometimes you just don’t have a choice but to take one out. Having to pay $1,700 to cut down a tree is going to make me think twice before I plant more. Is this a luxury I can really afford?” Carlson replies, “That is a valid concern. There are no easy answers.”

The tree planter continues, “It strikes me that this policy focuses on urban development and shorelines. Maybe it is applicable in a subdivision, maybe that is fair enough, but I do not see who that translates to the countryside generally. I do not think that it is fair to penalize people who cannot afford to pay a landscaper to install an expensive tree, when they are willing to put in seedlings. Smaller trees do better when transplanted than larger ones—that is well known—but you have to look after them. I can’t get equipment into may yard with all the trees I have planted, and I don’t have the soil, so the only way for me to put tree in is by hand. I have to plant a small tree and let it grow into the stone. I do not see how paying a fee helps the environment. And planting big trees is not environmentally friendly.”

Large nursery stock requires a significant amount of energy and water to produce, there are emissions associated with the heavy equipment that is needed to transplant them, bringing in heavy equipment can cause environmental disruption. Are those large trees that have been transplanted or grown in a pot ever going to regain their natural root structure?

There are other ways to plant trees, such as Kawartha Conservation’s popular tree seedling program. Taking advantage of that program, property owners can plant 1075 seedlings for the cost of the city’s four mature saplings. One participant remarks, “At first I tried buying large trees from the nursery, but the seedlings I got from Kawartha Conservation grew right past them. They take a while to get established, but mine have done really well.” Carlson explains that the City’s arborists “can make an exemption for that sort of thing. That is why we want to have the administrative staff to make the call for when you pay for the permit and do not. It is not going to be applied without consideration of the individual facts.”

But how do you decide how many seedlings equals a sapling? Should property owners have to negotiate an exemption to plant seedlings? Why is the City charging people to fund reforestation using mature saplings, rather than more conventional (economical and environmentally-friendly) tree planting methods? Carlson explained that some of the trees to be funded are for City Parks. Is that why the focus is on mature saplings? It is proposed that in cases where the soil is not deep enough to plant mature saplings, then the property owner will just have to pay the fee.

This by-law will only apply to privately owned land, though there is a similar proposed by-law that will impose fees for third parties who are cutting trees on City owned land. The City will not be making corresponding contributions to environmental protection for the trees that it cuts itself—for instance rerouting a road, cutting trees in parks, maintaining the rail trail or systematic brush removal along roadways with heavy equipment. “I do not think the general tax payer would want to pay for that work, and then the cost of the trees,” Carlson explains.

The funds raised by this program will go into a City reserve that will be used to fund environmental initiatives. To date, there has been one project, which was funded by the development fee for a road built to access a wind farm on the Oak Ridges Moraine. Since the development was on the moraine, the money funded the City’s Roads Department to plant trees by the roadside to alleviate blowing snow and visibility concerns, specifically on the moraine. Since it is a reserve, projects will require specific approval from City Council.

The fees imposed by this by-law could potentially be significant for individual properties. For instance, clearing a 200-acre forested lot with 1,000 eligible trees on it for a subdivision would entail a tree cutting fee of $1.7 million. But there is no fee applied for developing land with better soils. Will it encourage development on lands with better soil, but less tree cover? “There are already protections in the planning act against converting prime agricultural lands to residential,” Carlson articulates. “Where this [tree preservation model] has been applied around Lindsay, the costs were quite reasonable and doable. If that becomes a problem, then that requires us to take a look at it.” Yet, a local farmer observes, “the land being developed on the north side of Lindsay right now is excellent agricultural land. It’s just like what happened with Toronto. It was built on some of the best farmland in the province.”

The proposed by-law focuses on tree preservation specifically. As the largest and most conspicuous organisms around, trees often symbolize more complex ecosystems. It is easy to admire trees, while forgetting about all of the much smaller organisms that convert fallen trees into soil. For generations, so many efforts at environmental preservation have focused on trees as the symbol of ecosystem health more generally. Yet, if removed a forest may regenerate in centuries, while soils will take millennia and species, once lost, will presumably never return. In any case, with development, things will probably never be quite the same again. But the City does not seem to weigh the cost of losing soils or species against tree canopy. A naturalist remarks, “we need to consider how to minimize the impact of housing development. There are more variables to consider than trees. There are animals that need grasslands too.”

This naturalist continues, “I wish the City would take the time to think about what is really worth protecting. You can’t recreate good soil. We need to respect the intricacies of the geography that is already here. This is a very negative approach—it turns trees into a cost or a nuisance. I wish instead that the City could create an opportunity to appreciate and protect the environment that we have. To encourage people to take an interest, to make trees and other parts of the local environment into something that we value.”

One thing that often gets overlooked in environmental legislation, is a thorough examination of the environmental costs and benefits of the measures that are proposed. With ‘Green’ initiatives, it is easy to focus on the perceived benefits, without thinking about how the initiative itself will impact the environment. How would you ever measure the number of trees that this will actually save? How do you balance that against the environmental impact of all the people driving around to apply for permits or to assess trees, the resources that go into producing large nursery stock, putting float trailers on the road to move heavy equipment and using an excavator to plant trees? Or perhaps even people who don’t then plant trees because they see them as a liability? Or those who it inspires to remove them while they still can? Or, for those who aren’t wealthy enough that paying the fees will not really impact them, the environmental effects of forcing them to work more? Is it better to build a larger subdivision with more trees in it, or to have a more compact development? For the environment, it is very hard to know what the long term implications will be. Just as nobody really knew what the effects would be of turning almost all of southern Ontario into agricultural lots until it was done.

Looking back at the nineteenth century project to turn Ontario into farmland, it was a model that had been developed based on British experience, it did not consider the actual environment of the region in any detail, which ultimately led to significant problems. In parts of southern Ontario, the transition to farming went relatively well—though it may have taken a generation of hard labour. But in the Kawartha Lakes, this project ran into real environmental challenges. In some places farming was possible, in other places not.

One of the things that makes the Kawartha Lakes unique is the tremendous geographic diversity of the region. It is home to a nationally-significant waterway, fed by many very different watercourses; forests growing on the undulating land and thin soils on the fringe of the Canadian Shield; natural grasslands; savannahs; rich farmland; rougher old farms reverting to forests; urban developments; many different types of wetlands; the Dummer Moraine and a very different Oak Ridges Moraine—just to name a few. It has some of the most notable alvars in the world. It is very difficult to predict how an environmental initiative is going to effect all of these different habitats. But without considering the true diversity of the region, there is a risk that in some places it may cause more harm than good.

A primary motivation of this policy is a perceived loss of forest canopy cover. In some parts of region, particularly where significant development is occurring, there is little natural forest left. So much of the local waterfront has been developed, that conservation in that area is important. But in other parts of the City of Kawartha Lakes, particularly in the north, there are large tracts of forest. A significant part of the region is quickly reverting to forest. Should the same rules for the preservation of tree cover be applied in an urban development setting as in a forest, or developing forest?

“One thing that strikes me as odd about this,” remarks one local resident, “is the insistence on planting nursery stock. It makes sense in a subdivision or an urban setting to replace a tree that is being removed with another tree from the nursery. But I don’t understand why the City would ever encourage people to bring nursery stock into areas were forests are regenerating naturally, and the City should be encouraging people to plant native species—I don’t see anything here about that. The best solution for the environment is to allow forests to grow naturally. There is so much more biodiversity that way.” Or as an old farmer, who has since passed, often liked to say, “if you want a tree that will do well, the one that is growing there naturally will probably do pretty good.”

It is easy to say that the City of Kawartha Lakes needs to make an effort to preserve habitat, but in a region that is as environmentally diverse as the Kawarthas, it would take careful thought and planning figure out what that would entail. “If the City would like to do something for local ecosystems, the first step really should be a careful assessment of region to identify what is actually needed,” remarks a naturalist.

A stakeholder from the construction industries asks, “if it is really about shorelines and development, then why not just apply it to shoreline areas and have part of the development fees (which already exist) go towards environmental protection? If the point really is to get more money out of developers, then why not just charge them more? Why is everyone else being caught up in this? This policy is like a dragnet—dragnetting for scallops, you get a lot of by-catch and that is unfortunate, but it is the easiest and cheapest way to do it. This is the same, it seems to be about developers, but it’s going to impact a lot of other people.”

An environmentalist questions, “If the point is to do something for the environment, then why is the money going to roads, for roadside plantings that are really to control snow for drivers—that’s just more development for humans. Habitat is what other species need, so why isn’t the money being used to create significant areas that are set aside as habitat for other species. With all the development in Southern Ontario right now, it’s something that really is needed. We need to preserve many different habitats.”

It is easy to be cynical and point out what is wrong with a proposed initiative, but the environmental impacts of development are real. It is worth thinking about how this part of Ontario can develop in a way that is best for the people, plants, animals, insects and all the other organisms that call it home. Today, as society is faced with both a housing crisis and a climate crisis, how should the City of Kawartha Lakes balance building houses versus preserving the environment? “I really appreciate that the City has taken an interest in trying to help the environment,” says an tree enthusiast. It is also a positive that it is making a genuine effort to listen and consider the implications of the proposed measures before it proceeds.

“There is a misconception that this is a done deal, that council is going to do what they are going to do,” Carlson articulates. “This is a process of investigation, we are figuring out how to create a by-law and what it should look like. … I do want to hear from people. There are concerns that need to be brought to council. This is for council’s consideration, and they need to hear about the things that should be changed.”

So, if the tree by-law is important to you, or seems like it might impact your life, or alter the local environment in a way that you think bears further consideration, then make sure you have your say. You can fill out an online survey until December 22. For more information or to fill out the online survey, check out:

https://jumpinkawarthalakes.ca/tree-preservation-bylaw

You can also email feedback to this address, which will continue to accept feedback after December 22:

treebylaw@kawarthalakes.ca

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