New Brunswick

'Balancing act': City mulls fate of 19 trees at Officers' Square

Efforts to remodel Officers' Square while trying to save 19 trees scheduled to be cut down is being described as a "balancing act" by the mayor of Fredericton.

$8.9M upgrade project put on hold to see how the city could salvage the trees

Nineteen trees are set to be cut down in coming months to revamp Officers' Square in Fredericton. (CBC )

Efforts to remodel Officers' Square while trying to save 19 trees scheduled to be cut down is being described as a "balancing act" by the mayor of Fredericton.

Earlier this week, Mike O'Brien announced the $8.9-million development to upgrade Officers' Square would be put on hold for now.

This would allow time for city officials to find a way to save some of the downtown park's 19 trees from destruction amid public outcry.

"It's always a balancing act. How do you change what you have to position yourself strongly for the future?" O'Brien said in an interview with Information Morning Fredericton.  

The city announced its plans to cut down 19 trees in coming months at a council-in-committee meeting last week, starting with eight trees in the next few weeks.

'A complete oversight'

The removal coincides with a planned revitalization of Officers' Square over the next four years. Most of the trees that will be cut down are beside the wall along Officers' Square and vary in age.

"The whole aspect of the trees was never really articulated and it caught the public off guard," O'Brien said.

"There's no question around trees, emotion comes into play."

O'Brien said the process has been in place between two and three years and has consisted of several plans and public meetings, but there was no reference made to the trees.

"Somewhere along the line, even though plans were developed and shown to the public … it didn't make a reference to the trees," he said.

"Nothing intentional, just a complete oversight on that aspect of it."

Now what?

Now the city is going back to its heritage, design and forestry consultants to look at every option available to move the project forward but to also save some of the trees that are there — especially the larger, beloved trees.

Those options will then be taken to a public meeting to show people the various plans available, and council will later make a decision.

Mayor Mike O'Brien speaks with the public at a protest last weekend to protect the trees. (Sarah Petz/CBC )

At the same time, he said the historic wall along the perimeter of Queen Street and St. Anne's Point Drive in Officers' Square also needs to be restored, as it could also become a safety hazard to the public.

O'Brien said the wall needs to be rebuilt and the foundation needs to be redone, which put 14 trees at risk of being cut down. 

"Maybe there's a way to save them and transplant them somewhere else before all the fence work has to be done," he said.

This has caused outrage among residents who have expressed their concerns through protests, a petition with close to 2,000 signatures and wrapping blankets around the trees to prevent them from being cut.

A development that will force 19 trees to be cut down at Officers' Square will continue as planned, the mayor of Fredericton says. 0:53

Some have even said they're prepared to surround the trees and the equipment that will be used to cut them down.

"People in Fredericton love their trees, so do the staff," he said. "We're renowned for it."

The mayor said there's about a 63 per cent tree cover over the city. Staff hope to plant an additional 600 trees this year to the 3,000 trees planted over the past 15 years. 

More life to the city

Nonetheless, he said after years of public consultation, the skating oval is a feature the city feels could add value and vibrancy to the city's downtown core.

O'Brien said it would also bring in more events and entice more people to live in the downtown.

"It would bring more people and [increase] tourism and support businesses," he said.  

Over the past week, members of the public voiced concerns over the city's plan to cut down 19 trees from Officers' Square. (CBC)

A heritage permit was approved by the province in 2016, subject to final plans and specifications for the project.

Now, the city is working on the completion of these plans, but work can't start until those final plans have been approved by the province.

"We're working on trying to obtain that final approval," he said. 

If they don't get Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister John Ames' approval, O'Brien said the plan would need to be redone.

Issue needs to be heard from all sides

At a city council meeting earlier this week, a motion was made to add an item to the agenda that would delay work to the heritage site.

When council denied the motion to add an item to the agenda, a crowd of close to 100 people became rowdy and started to protest.

O'Brien said this wouldn't be fair to members of the public who weren't at the meeting.

"If at last minute you want to add something and speak to a subject that could potentially influence a decision down the road, you have to make that public for everybody," he said.

People gathered outside of Fredericton City Hall on Monday in protest. (Gary Moore/CBC)

"We'd have to be able to articulate to the public that we're going to talk about an issue and therefore people that would like to hear one side of the issue could speak to it, people who want to talk about the other side of the issue can speak to it."

On Monday night, O'Brien was also forced to clear council from the chambers for a few minutes until the crowd settled down.

"It sounds like it's a cold-hearted thing, but if process breaks down, nothing would ever get done," he said.

"Every time we advertise our agenda ... a debate that's going to happen at council, it's put out in the public earlier so that everybody can come on all sides of the issue."


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