O Christmas tree, no Christmas tree? Controversy darkens Galway roundabout light display

A Christmas tree at the Galway roundabout in St. John's has sparked more controversy than joy heading into the holidays. 

Developer and former premier Danny Williams says tree wasn't a problem last year

Developer and former premier Danny Williams says he's angry with the City of St. John's for not allowing him to light up a Christmas tree at a roundabout in Galway. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

A Christmas tree at the Galway roundabout in St. John's has sparked more controversy than joy heading into the holidays. 

Developer and former premier Danny Williams says he wanted to bring a little light to the area for Christmas again this year but the City of St. John's is pulling the plug on the idea.

"We planned to do exactly what we did last year. We went out and picked up a beautiful, big Christmas tree, over 30 feet, and we were going to light it up," Williams told CBC News. 

"So we erected it last week and put it up in the middle of the largest roundabout out there."

But Williams, president of development company DewCor, said the city has traffic concerns, though there were none last year and there were no accidents related to the tree. He also said the city wanted a building and development permit, which was applied for, requires the tree to have no lights at all and includes a $2-million liability insurance policy. 

"I'm just beside myself. I'm really angry," said Williams. "I've sort of kept my head down with the city over the last couple of years, tried to avoid disputes and fights, but when they're out basically saying there's going to be a tree lighting in the city on Thursday and encouraging people to light it up, and then they turn around and say that can't happen in Galway for absolutely ridiculous reasons, I'm at a loss to understand it. it just doesn't make any common sense but it's typical of the way the city has behaved.

"I say to people, 'Why would you want to invest in the city of St. John's? Provincial government, give us to Mount Pearl.' We'd go over there in a blink."

Williams says he'll take this tree down and give it away instead. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

In an emailed statement to CBC News, city manager Kevin Breen said a permit is required to build items on city land, and the tree at the roundabout in 2019 didn't have one.

"Applications for permits are reviewed to ensure public safety and standard operating procedures are in place," he said.

"When an applicant looks to build or erect a structure on city property insurance is required in case of an accident or damages. This is to protect taxpayers from paying damages if an incident occurs as result of the structure."

Breen said there is no issue with the tree itself, but the concern is with the lighting in the middle of a busy roundabout, which he said could cause drivers to be distracted.

"Therefore the recommendation of the transportation engineering division is to allow the tree without illumination for public safety reasons," he said. 

The city itself is planning a mass lighting celebration on Thursday, throughout the entire city to avoid gatherings in accordance with public health measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It's also asking the public to join the celebration.

The city plans to light city hall, city parks, Confederation Building, the Prince Philip Parkway, Government House, Cabot Tower, MUN Botanical Garden, downtown St. John's and George Street.

CBC News asked the city Tuesday afternoon why these locations aren't considered potential distractions for drivers. 

In an emailed statement Tuesday night, Breen said, "If DewCor wants to look at a spot not located in the centre of a busy intersection the city will consider [it]."

"The holidays lights initiative does not advise or permit residents to compromise safety or erect trees in an intersection," he said. 

Williams said he plans to take the tree down and give it away to anyone looking for a 32-foot Christmas tree. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn