Langley’s Greenwashed Tree Bylaw

Back in April 2019 I wrote that the lack of a strong tree retention policy was systematically destroying ecosystems in Willoughby, undermining any effort to show that increased density saves trees and is good for the environment. Although deeply flawed in the long term, NIMBYs are too often winning the moral argument because urbanists are letting developers do whatever they want. Shortly after writing that article, Township of Langley Council responded with a pathetically greenwashed tree bylaw that, well, didn’t actually do anything to protect 99% of trees being destroyed since it didn’t actually apply to the primary perpetrators.

The Current Bylaw… for you.

Apparently this first 2019 tree bylaw was intended to be a stopgap measure before council formed the Tree Protection Advisory Committee. This committee actually comprised of some very competent and knowledgeable people and presented council with an updated version of the Tree Protection Bylaw in 2021. Unfortunately, the reality is that all this revised update did was undo some of the 2019 lobbying by Blair Whitmarsh and some private property rights activists (although Whitmarsh did sit on the TPAC) to weaken what had been originally presented (especially regarding the 30 cm diameter).

Yet, after all this new “tree protection”, the significant exceptions to the bylaw are what actually matters most:

The Bylaw applies to all trees on private property in the Township, with the following exceptions:

  • Lands within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) or on portions of non-ALR land that is used for farming
  • Private land used for the production or cutting of protected trees under a valid, existing licence for a tree farm, nursery or Christmas trees
  • Land that is the subject of a development application
  • Trees smaller than 20 centimetres diameter at breast height (DBH)
  • Standard trimming or pruning of all trees or hedges no more than 6 metres in height

The current bylaw… for developers

So this bylaw doesn’t apply to developers or farmers. While private citizens have a whole bylaw dedicated to the trees in their backyard, which, if you live in Willoughby, you probably don’t have, developers only have to follow the Subdivision and Development Servicing Bylaw which states:

Tree Protection is designed to encourage retention of significant trees on development sites.

Subdivision and Development Servicing Bylaw 2019 No. 5382, Schedule I

Yet when you look at this bylaw, the language presented is clear that this “encouragement” is more of a nominal equation and doesn’t really encourage anything. For one, anything that isn’t considered a “significant tree” has zero value. The definition of a “significant tree” is:

i. with a trunk diameter equal to or greater than 30 cm (12 inches) measured 1.4 meters above the highest point of the natural grade of the ground measured from the base of the tree, and
ii. determined by a Landscape Architect or Arborist to be in “excellent” or “good” condition, pursuant to Table 4.1 of the Guide for Plant Appraisal (10th edition), as may be amended from time to time

The document I have still reads 30 cm, not 20 cm, so I’m not sure if the new “20 cm” revised tree protection bylaw for private citizens also applies for developers or not. Yet irregardless, it’s only a matter of the following equation to clearcut a development site:

So if I have a 5 acre 15 UPA (units per are) townhome development site with 200 significant trees, this would mean that I would need to buy 150 trees at around $100-150 ea (although I’ve seen some as low as $50). Here’s the full picture: I build 75 homes that I will sell for around $900,000 each ($67.5 million), and the cost to clearcut is $7,500-$22,500 – total. Otherwise, saving a significant tree or 2 could cost me 1-2 units. Not much of an “encouragement” to retain significant trees, whether through a positive motivation or a negative penalty, now is it?

The interesting thing about this calculation for developement sites is that it doesn’t really matter whether or not there are 10x significant trees that are 30 years old or 1000x 100 year old Redwoods: it is based on the size of the site, not the amount of trees or quality of the ecosystem.

The inevitable result

In 2019, a relatively slow year, I tracked 40 apartment building sites that comprised just over 4,000 housing units in the Township of Langley. According to developer-retained arborists, these 40 sites had 6,284 “significant trees” on site. Keep in mind that these only include trees with diameters of 30 cm or more that were rated “good” or “excellent”. Of these 6,284 trees, only 200 (3.2%) would be saved and would be replaced by 5,325 new trees – with no guarantees that these trees would “make it” (for those concerned with schools, the school board estimates that these 4,009 units will have 1,312 school aged children living in them). Funny enough, replacement trees generally would not qualify as “significant trees” by the Township’s own bylaws.

The farce of staff reports

Township of Langley council doesn’t even look at arborist reports. Staff doesn’t present them – they just disclose a small blurb about trees in each council report for each application. I doubt many, if anyone, on staff look at full reports. Why should they when they don’t actually matter to them. The only reason that staff might look at an arborist report is verify the rare time a developer might want to retain a tree to save themselves a few hundred bucks (or, more accurately, to present value to future homeowners that might *gasp* actually appreciate some trees on site).

One development site in particular came to my attention when I saw the development application signage posted as I ran by on one of my regular jogs through Willoughby – it’s actually the site shown in my thumbnail at 6800-7000 block between 202A and 204th Street.

On April 26, 2021, a report came to council for first and second reading for a 12.84 acre site approximately 300 meters west of where I live. I run by this site 3-5x a week and have enjoyed the gorgeous Redwood cedars, Japanese maples, and many other species lining the undeveloped street of my run. Imagine my surprise when I learned that, according to the report to council, that “The tree management plans submitted by the applicant indicate that no significant trees exist on the subject site.”

All that council would see, apart from the fact that the satellite imagery provided showed a forest, was that there were 0 trees and 248 replacement trees would be provided due to the calculation (I suppose only 8.27 of the 12.84 acres were developable). I even brought one of my friends, who is a professional arborist, to the side of the road and he/she stated it was obvious that at least 3 dozen of the larger trees that we could see were obviously in healthy conditions and could probably live for another 100+ years.

Since this was in the middle of the pandemic when we weren’t allowed into public hearings, I wrote a written submission to council:

I would like my photos in this link to reflect that the Report to Council has false statements regarding the number of significant trees. I live at 20500 block on 69th Avenue, Langley and this is one block away from me. There are MANY significant trees on this property. I feel that an arborist report should be made available to Council and the public.

Link to photos: https://www.facebook.com/abetterlangleytoday/posts/3976786969102899

Unfortunately, staff misrepresented the summary of my concerns in the public minutes:

Unfortunately, no councillor bothered to look into these matters between the public hearing and third reading and the application passed third reading on an 8-1 vote (Councillor Richter opposed). There was no commentary from any councillor.

While it would not save any of the trees, I requested a Freedom of Information request for the arborists report, knowing something was off.

The report provided an inventory of 367 “bylaw sized” trees from a single visit done on June 21, 2017. Not a single tree over 30 cm in diameter, according to the arborist that was retained by developer, was in “Good” or “Excellent” condition. Apparently, the entire forest of trees was in “fair”, “poor”, “dead/dying” condition or had already been removed. This says nothing about any tree smaller than 30 cm.

Almost 1000 trees were demolished on this one 12.84 acre development site, including 367 “bylaw” sized trees that were allegedly not in good enough condition to be considered “significant trees” per Township of Langley bylaw.

Following the destruction of this ecosystem this summer, I wrote to the arborist asking them:

  • Were there any visits to the site by your firm between June 21, 2017 (date of visit) and February 22, 2021 (date of development application submission)?
  • Is it a common practice to deliver a report using a visual assessment with this much time in between? 
  • Is it possible that any number of these trees, between 2017 and 2021, may have improved their condition?
  • Is it common in this region to see this many old-age trees of “by-law” size be classified in such poor condition?
  • Upon seeing a 100% failure rate of large old-age trees’s, especially large Western Red Cedars, was there any indication or discussion regarding the potential cause of an allegedly failed ecosystem?

That was two weeks ago, and I have not yet received a response.

Again, due to the way our bylaws are written, none of this matters. There are no penalties or true incentives to save a single tree on a development site, whether it is a 150 year old Redwood cedar or its 25-year-old offspring . Yet council still pretends like they accomplished something with their Tree Protection Bylaw. Of course, they didn’t, especially when compared to other cities in the region that have recognized the value of urban trees.

City of Vancouver Tree Bylaw… for developers:

Unless a tree requires removal under one of the conditions listed above, all property development (renovation or new building) requires you to retain existing trees located on your property.

All trees to be retained on the site require protection during any construction or development. All trees on adjacent properties or boulevard trees that are in danger of being damaged must be protected as well.

If there are trees 20 centimetres in diameter or larger, an arborist’s report is required to make a development permit application.

Protection of Trees By-law 9958, City of Vancouver Website

Fines for offences in the City of Vancouver:

Fine for offence
11.8 Every person who commits an offence against this By-law is punishable on conviction by a fine of not less than $500.00 and not more than $10,000.00 for each offence.
Fine for continuing offence
11.9 Every person who commits an offence of a continuing nature against this By-law is punishable on conviction by a fine of not less than $250.00 and not more than $10,000.00 for each day such offence continues.

PROTECTION OF TREES BY-LAW NO. 9958, PDF

Burnaby Tree Bylaw… for all…

Unlike in the Township of Langley, Burnaby’s tree bylaw is actually harsher for developers than it is for residents:

Under the Burnaby Tree Bylaw, a Protected Tree is defined as:

  1. On properties subject to a development application, any tree 20 cm (8 inches) or greater in diameter.
  2. On properties NOT subject to a development application:
    a. Any conifer tree 30 cm (12 inches) or greater in diameter, and
    b. Any deciduous tree 45 cm (18 inches) or greater in diameter.
“Trees”, City of Burnaby

Furthermore, it’s penalties could theoretically be bolder:

If a “Protected Tree” was cut in contravention or breach of the bylaw, the City’s enforcement process would be followed, consistent with current bylaw infractions.
Potential remediation/penalties may include:
• The forfeiture of a bond held for replacement tree planting;
• Planting of Replacement Trees;
• A bylaw infraction ticket for an offense; or,
• Prosecution of the bylaw penalty.

Burnaby Tree Bylaw brochure

Realistic Solutions

If we really want to get serious about retaining significant trees we either need substantially greater penalties or, even better, incentives to saves the trees while building housing, such as what my friend, Michael Pratt proposed in his 2022 election campaign:

Create a new policy, subject to further refinement, which creates the opportunity to preserve more significant trees, especially when they are in stands on the property, as well as promote other environmental assets. An example of an incentive that could be used would be a density provision whereby a builder receives a bonus 2-4 UPA if the typology of development is single-family, or 6-12 UPA for multi-family developments. 

Michael Pratt, “Planning”

While the details are debatable, the concepts are what are important. Anti-housing language is a non-starter. Yet if we are to advocate for truly sustainable growth, we need to maintain to the integrity of our words. We can’t keep saying we are building more homes closer together to protect the environment only to destroy entire ecosystems and limit human beings to places where we can’t see a tree (or at least a tree that isn’t destined to fall to more development). Over on another campaign page, Michael writes:

Work towards making sure that the ‘3-30-300 Rule’ applies in each of the Township’s neighbourhoods. This means that at a minimum, every resident should be able to see at least 3 trees from their home; every neighbourhood should have a 30 percent tree canopy cover, and every resident in a neighbourhood should be within 300 metres of a public park or green space.

Michael Pratt, “Environment”

I don’t promote Michael’s ideas and support his campaign(s) because I’m friends with him – I became friends with him because of his commitment to the ideals we share. We both understand that supporting the environment requires better solutions than just voting “no” to every housing application that crosses council’s table. It isn’t good enough just to announce how many significant trees are going to be destroyed by a development, nor is it reasonable to stop building homes when the population base requires us to solve our current under supply.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for your comprehensive analysis of the TOL tree bylaw. I agree with all your concerns. I think the bylaw focus should be more on the canopy than the individual tree. It should be a tree canopy bylaw that requires developers and residents to look at the combined impacts of retained trees rather than a bylaw that considers each tree in isolation of the others. Thanks again for raising this important topic.

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  2. Well I wonder if you have seen all the new strong trees planted to replace the trees that were removed to provide homes for our kids and grandkids.. A forest fire in central BC will burn more trees in one day than will ever be removed in Langley. considering we replace 2 for 1. If you are a Langley homeowner and wish to remove one of your backyard trees, make an application, pay the fees and see how long it takes to bring the treed down.

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