Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie says the clear-cutting of a 10-hectare (25-acre) woodlot near the Meadowlands in Ancaster is "the cost of doing nothing" on protecting urban woodlots. 

The woodlot, owned by real estate agent and developer James McNiven, was cleared of dozens of mature trees, many nearly a century old, despite stop orders from the city and a visit from police on the weekend. 

The area was cleared days before a tougher bylaw protecting urban forests could be enacted — a bylaw more than a decade in the making. The earliest it can pass into effect is Friday.

Under the new bylaw, McNiven could have been assessed a special fine in excess of $100,000, up to a number intended to eliminate any financial gain by circumventing the permit process to fell trees. 

Instead, McNiven will face an antiquated pre-amalgamation​ Ancaster bylaw, that caps the penalty of felling "heritage trees" at $10,000.

McNiven has yet to respond to calls from the CBC. 

Strategic plan needed

Hamilton Naturalists' Club (HNC) urban forestry coordinator Giuliana Casimirri said removals of woodlots like the one in Ancaster at McNiven and Golf Links Road, backing onto Highway 403, "underscore the need to get on with an urban forest strategic plan sooner than later."

"It's a shame to lose a woodlot anywhere, but especially in an area that has seen almost all of it's former vegetation — be it farm, meadow or forest — converted to residential and commercial development. This is devastating," Casimirri said. 

"The tall trees on the property were a fixture for the neighbourhood for so long, well before McNiven Road became a thoroughfare in the 1970s. It is shocking to see massive trees strewn about on the ground."

McHattie said protecting urban woodlots "should have been a very easy decision for council to make." He added that previous bylaws focused on protecting the tree, not the woodlot, in rural and urban areas.

Concerns rural residents may be bogged down with applying for permits to change the landscape of their property was the reason for the most delays in passing the bylaw, McHattie said.

New penalties

The new bylaw, which was approved by planning committee Tuesday, protects the woodlots, with penalties up to $25,000 for an individual, and $100,000 for a corporation. Fines can go even higher if greater financial gain is proven in an appropriate court.

Casimirri, who is also a sustainability intern with the Metcalf Foundation, was supportive of the new woodlot protection bylaw. In her presentation to the planning committee on Tuesday, she said Hamilton needs to have an urban forestry strategy to ensure healthy woodlots for recreation and preservation, in addition to the current bylaw before council.

"There are so few woodlands left where citizens can actually see large trees, a healthy understory and migrating birds," Casimirri said. "Our current natural areas along the Escarpment, in Cootes Paradise, and our Hamilton Conservation lands are almost loved to death and facing major threats from deer browsing and invasive plants and insects. 

"It's very hard for these areas to serve as recreation areas, educations areas and also maintain some ecological integrity. We should be looking at acquiring private natural lands, so that we can preserve the ecological function of our core natural areas and still have places for people to walk, enjoy and learn about nature."