London

Council briefs: Tree bylaw vote has councillor referencing Blackridge scandal

London city council voted against a motion that asked city staff to study expanding the scope of the tree preservation bylaw.

'Blackridge6 strike again' says Coun. Turner after motion to study expanding tree bylaw fails

London city council voted down a motion that would have asked city staff to look at the cost of widening the scope of the city's tree preservation bylaw. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

London city council voted down a motion on Tuesday night to have staff look at the cost of expanding the scope of the city's tree preservation bylaw.

Enacted in 2016, the bylaw requires property owners to apply for a permit before taking down any tree larger than 50 centimetres in trunk diameter. 

A motion out of the civic works committee asked council to have staff estimate the cost of lowering the distinctive tree threshold to 40 centimetres in the next budget year.

City staff deal with about 500 tree removal permit applications each year, and only 10 per cent are denied. A staff report says for every tree removal application the city receives, about four more are never submitted because homeowners are made aware of the bylaw. 

Staff estimate the bylaw has saved 120 hectares of tree canopy since its inception and increased the tree canopy size from 23.7 per cent in 2015 to 26.8 per cent last year. 

The same staff report says lowering the threshold of what defines a distinctive tree increases the amount of canopy saved, but also adds to the enforcement costs. 

Those factors are outlined in this table:

(City of London)

Staff at Tuesday's council meeting said going to a 40 centimetre threshold would require the hiring of two more arborists at an estimated cost of $250,000. Without an increase to their budget, staff said they would have to make up the difference by paring back the number of new trees they plant. 

Coun. Shawn Lewis argued benefits of added enforcement aren't worth the extra expenditure of expanding the enforcement. 

"I just can't send our staff off to do work that we don't have the money to do," he said. "Our tree canopy is growing and I want it to keep growing and I want us to keep planting." 

Coun. Stephen Turner argued the focus should be on preserving mature trees, and that having staff study the cost of expanded enforcement doesn't bind council to any decision. 

He also pointed out that small trees take years to develop to the point where they can provide all the benefits of a mature tree.

"If our efforts are focused on planting rather than preservation, we're going to be much further behind our canopy goals that we have set as a city," he said.

Councillors Maureen Cassidy and Anna Hopkins argued that London is behind other Ontario cities which already have bylaws that provide protection for trees less than 50 centimetres in diameter. 

In the end, the motion to have staff look into expanding the scope of the tree preservation bylaw fell by a 7-8 vote with Cassidy, Hopkins, Turner, Coun. Jesse Helmer, Coun. Mo Salih, Coun. Elizabeth Peloza and Coun. Arielle Kayabaga in favour. 

The vote perturbed Turner enough for him to call a group of councillors who voted against the motion as the "Blackridge6" a reference to the Blackridge Strategy scandal that came out of the 2018 election. You can read about that here.

Ask for infrastructure money amended 

In another close vote, council opted to alter a request for infrastructure money from senior governments. 

The civic works committee had passed a motion authorizing council to pursue $5.5 million in provincial money available through the Resilience Infrastructure Stream (RIS) for active transportation, including pedestrian and cycling projects.

At Tuesday's meeting, Coun. Steve Lehman brought forward an amendment spelling out that $2 million of that RIS money go toward heating, ventilation and and air conditioning upgrades at Stronach and Carling arenas, with the rest going toward active transportation.

His motion called for the $2 million of city money saved on the arena HVAC work to then be submitted as a municipal contribution for a different stream — called the Public Transit Stream (PTS) —  whereby both senior governments ask for a 27 cent per cent municipal contribution they match for active transportation projects.

"The net result being that we would end up with $10 million of active transportation projects as opposed to the $5.5 million we would have had at no extra cost to the city," said Lehman.  

Coun. Peloza voted against the amendment, saying the intake for PTS money does not start until 2021, and she'd prefer to get the active transportation money flowing sooner. 

"A lot can change between now and then," she said. "We know that for the resiliency stream projects ... need to be completed by 2021."

Helmer agreed, saying the PTS application process is long and slow moving. 

"If we want to move active transportation projects in 2021, there is a fund that is open and designed to move quickly. I'd like to maximize that opportunity right now," he said. 

Lehman's amendment passed by an 8-7 vote with Mayor Ed Holder, Coun. Michael van Holst, Lewis, Coun. Mo Salih, Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen, Coun. Steve Hillier voting in favour.

Council asks province to slow down on conservation authorities

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority says Ontario's COVID-19 budget bill would hand its power to developers and create a 'patchwork' of environmental programs that would undermine environmental protections. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Coun. Hopkins put forward an emergent motion that calls on London city council to ask the province to delay legislation that will severely alter the role of conservation authorities.

The head of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) says Ontario's proposed overhaul will weaken environmental protections and put more power into the hands of private developers, while negating their fundamental role. 

Hopkins, who sits on the UTRCA board, said the changes are included in Bill 229 provincial legislation the Ford government is expected to pass on Dec. 10. 

She Bill 229's changes are "drastic" and that municipalities and conservation authorities need more time to fully understand them. 

Motions that ask the province to slow down on Bill 229 were broken down into four separate motions which all passed.

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