How many trees need to fall before they’re heard?
When Ed Buchan read about the 776 charges that were announced for the illegal cutting of trees along the banks of Martindale Pond he was relieved.
“Finally, people are being held accountable for destroying these wooded areas,” he told The Pointer in an email.
The charges were made public in November and were the result of what the St. Catharines manager of By-Law enforcement, Paul Chudoba, called an “unwavering commitment to protecting our green spaces and upholding our by-laws”. For Buchan statements like these raised more questions than they answered and fueled a sense of frustration.
In the not too distant past he had witnessed and reported a very similar incident of unauthorized tree removal along the slopes of Martindale Pond-Richardson Creek and nothing had come of it. Buchan’s story raises serious concerns about how consistent the City of St. Catharines is at applying and enforcing its own bylaws.
It was the sound of chainsaws that first drew Buchan’s attention one day in May 2022 from his home that backs on to Martindale Pond. It was a day that should have been like any other; the buzz of saws was unexpected. Buchan saw people on the opposite bank, chainsaws in hand busily removing trees.
He has lived in his home atop the slopes leading to “the Pond” since 2004. A lifelong St. Catharines resident, he is increasingly concerned about the preservation of the city’s shrinking tree canopy. He and his wife spend many hours watching local wildlife from their backyard and volunteer regularly with efforts to support the environment within their community. He knew the large trees growing along this forested embankment were public property and no resident had the right to remove or alter them in any way. He recounts how one of the felled trees slammed into the water so hard that a large wave rippled across to the opposite bank.
“I am not typically a complainer, but when I see things like that it makes my blood boil.” He knew it was nesting season for the swans, ducks and geese that inhabit the pond and there was no telling how this could be impacting them.
He took pictures of everything, including the vehicle belonging to the crew doing the work and recording the license plate. Armed with what seemed to be irrefutable evidence, he approached officials. Motivated by the knowledge the trees were among the “last major stands of old Oak and Black Walnut trees” in the vicinity, he was determined to do his part to either save them or prevent more damage by holding those who violated bylaws accountable.
His first call was to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), and though they were helpful, they were also quick to point out that it was not their jurisdiction. The land, he was told, belonged to St. Catharines and therefore it was the City and/or Niagara Region that should address his complaint.
Undeterred, he called the City and the Region. He shared his photos, including the plate number of the vehicle, with both levels of government. The Region suggested he work with the City as it was their property. According to Buchan, he called the City multiple times. But his fruitless attempts to get help left him frustrated.
“There's people taking trees down for a better view of the pond and nothing can be done about it”.
In an email to The Pointer, the Director of Municipal Works, Darrell Smith, initially stated that no record of the complaint could be found. He went on to say the City relies on input from residents to assist with enforcement as there are not sufficient resources to be proactive.
Fortunately Buchan had kept good records of his complaint to the City and provided the name of the staff member who took his information. That name was subsequently relayed to Director Smith and the record of complaint was then located.
According to the City's records an employee did visit the site after Buchan’s complaint was received. The records indicate a branch had come down on the home owner’s fence and this compromised the structural integrity of the tree and therefore permission was given to remove it. The Director said there are no other trees mentioned in the notes and therefore he can not comment on other trees that may have been removed after the employee’s visit.
The City’s Urban Forestry Management Plan states that “Trees are an integral part of both our community and the ecological systems in which our community exists. They represent one of the major assets to the City, similar in size and scale to the buildings and grey infrastructure. They provide significant economic, social and ecological benefits. They are as necessary as water, roads, and energy to sustaining a healthy community”.
According to the 2011 document, the City’s tree coverage sat between 15 and 17 percent, with a recommended target of 30 percent. As previously reported by The Pointer, the City was pursuing an initiative to plant 100,000 trees over the next 10 years, however a report from staff in July of this year identified a number of challenges that cast serious doubt on the goal. Councillor Kevin Townsend expressed disappointment in the report that seemed to “suggest that it’s not possible for the city to do this”, before referring it back to staff for more work.
Despite City records indicating verbal permission was given to remove one tree from the embankment behind the home in the top right of this image, several appear to have been chopped down.
(Ed Smith/The Pointer)
Buchan calls the City’s explanation of the situation “very sad”. He says the City was completely unaware of the incident until he reached out to them and therefore their response implying the property owner was given permission prior to cutting the tree seems “untrue”. He further points out that by the time he had filed the complaint and an employee showed up at the site, many trees had been cut, including the one near the top of the bank.
The Pointer spoke with the owner of the property that borders the City-owned embankment that has been denuded of trees. The homeowner said a branch had fallen from one of the trees and they subsequently called in an arborist. The arborist identified the tree as a hazard and had it removed. The homeowner said that while the tree was outside the fence line it was encroaching on their property.
The Pointer visited the site and photographed many tree stumps that had obviously been cut with a saw. In an email from Smith it was confirmed that “there are no circumstances where a citizen can remove a tree from public property without authorization”.
On November 13 the City announced a total of 776 charges had been laid against four people for violations of the City tree bylaw at a location only one kilometer from the site Buchan complained about. The bylaw states that no person shall injure or destroy a City-owned tree or permit the injury or destruction of a City tree, without a permit. The similarities are obvious, both violations occurred with trees on City-owned lands, both occurred on the steep embankment to Martindale Pond-Richardson Creek and both involved homeowners removing trees without permits. One resulted in 776 charges, one resulted in none. Buchan doesn’t understand how the same bylaw was so inconsistently applied.
The repeated disturbance of Martindale Pond is taking a toll on the numerous species, including several species at risk, that rely on the area so close to the coast of Lake Ontario.
According to Ontario’s Natural Heritage Mapping System, seven endangered species; four threatened and six species of special concern have been spotted in the area of Martindale Pond in the last six months. This includes four endangered tree species—American Chestnut, Cucumber Tree, Cheery Birch, Eastern Flowering Dogwood— that grow in the area. Several threatened and endangered bird species also rely on the habitat of Martindale Pond, including the Red-headed Woodpecker, which Ontario’s recovery strategy explains is significantly threatened by the loss of habitat and nesting grounds. The bird nests in standing dead trees.
According to the City’s website: “The City of St. Catharines regularly evaluates the health of trees planted on City property and on boulevards. Any trees identified as dead, in poor health or in need of removal are identified by qualified arborists. Property owners are not permitted to cut or trim trees on City property.”
The area around Martindale Pond is home to a number of species at risk that could be impacted by the continual removal of trees in the area.
(City of St. Catharines)
Buchan feels he did exactly what the City says should be done in a case like this, he contacted the “Citizens First” line and both of his ward councillors; he followed through and collected photographic evidence. In the end, he feels “(the trees) had no impact on the resident’s property other than to provide a better view,” and that “All of the trees were cut down illegally, because there was no permission.”
Although he’s glad to see the City has decided to press charges in the latest case along Martindale Pond, he is left wondering why the rules are applied to some but not to others.
Email: [email protected]
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