Landowners will be tempted to clear cut woodlots this summer because of a delay in implementing tough new protections for urban forests, says a Hamilton city councillor.

Coun. Brian McHattie tried to push the city Monday to rush a public meeting into Hamilton’s new urban forestry bylaw, which puts harsh penalties on landowners who clear cut valuable forests to make room for development.

'Once they’re gone, they’re gone.'- Coun. Brian McHattie

But McHattie’s motion failed 8-4 at the general issues committee, pushing the consultation back until August.

The Ward 1 councillor worries private landowners will spend between now and August cutting down forests because they know the bylaw is coming.

It’s already happened, McHattie said, and “it’s clear-cutting season.” And with trees, “once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Each former municipality has a tree-cutting bylaw, as did the former region. But they lack enough teeth to adequately protect Hamilton’s forests, staff say.

The new bylaw would put restrictions on which trees can be cut, and how many, on privately owned woodlots of 0.2 hectares (0.5 acres) or more. Enforcement also requires the full time equivalent of one staff member.

Individuals who violate the bylaw would be fined $10,000 or $1,000 per tree on first offence, with a subsequent fine of $25,000 or $2,500 per tree.

Corporations get stiffer penalties — $50,000 or $5,000 per tree, and $100,000 for subsequent convictions.

Staff could have had the requisite public meeting on the bylaw on July 8, but it would have been tight. McHattie first pushed to waive the public meeting, saying the bylaw has been in the works since 2009. Then he urged councillors to make the public meeting on July 8.

Forests cut down

Councillors meet infrequently in the summer, which means the public meeting will happen in August, instead.

Five urban forests have been clear cut in three years in Wards 7, 8, 11 and 15 – areas where residential developments are planned.

Coun. Terry Whitehead of Ward 8 saw two forests cut in his area in the last two years. The city tried to take one landowner to court, he said, but dropped it because it realized the regional bylaw contained too many loopholes to win the case.

He also voted to rush the public meeting.

“I know what happened in my ward,” he said. “If we delay, there won’t be any urban forest left to devastate.”

But the other councillors said the public needs a chance to give input.

“The public have a right to come forward,” Coun. Brad Clark said. “To do it quickly is a disservice.”