Landmark maple tree in Long Branch could soon be cut down to make way for new house

A maple tree that residents groups in Toronto's Long Branch neighbourhood say is 160 years old could soon be chopped down to make way for a new house being built on a private lot. But advocates for the tree are also upset about a letter from the lawyer representing the property owner.

Residents trying to save tree angered by letter from property owner's lawyer

Long Branch residents Sheila Carmichael and Sandy Donald are working to prevent a neighbour from cutting down a maple tree. The neighbour wants the tree cut down to make way for a larger house. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

The fate of a silver maple that some residents say is among the oldest trees in Long Branch is now in the hands of a local planning body — and it could soon be chopped down if a local property owner gets the green light.

The Black Barn Maple, in a back yard on James Street in the west-end Toronto neighbourhood, will be cut down if the owner's application to redevelop his property is approved by the Toronto Local Appeal Body (TLAB), a decision that could come at any time.

"It would be a huge loss to the local area if this tree was sadly cut down," said Sheila Carmichael of the Black Barn Maple Committee. Residents groups say the tree is 160 years old — an assertion disputed by the property owner.

"It just adds to everything we consider special about Long Branch. It has become a rallying point for a lot of people," Carmichael added.

Adding to the controversy is a letter that the owner's lawyer sent to local residents as well as to others who've become embroiled in the fight over the tree. Some of the maple's advocates have described the letter as bullying and an attempt to silence opposition to the homeowner's plans.

Sheila Carmichael, of the Black Barn Maple Committee in Long Branch, says the tree has become a rallying point for locals who have seen too many trees in their neighbourhood destroyed. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

The eight-page letter lays out the homeowner's contention that the silver maple is not nearly as old the residents believe it to be, nor does it qualify as a city-designated heritage tree, which would protect it from destruction.

Lawyer Mark Klaiman, who wrote the letter, said the tree was likely planted in the 1920s, when the house on James Street was built, not in 1860, as the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association (LBNA), which also wants the tree saved, maintains. 

He also questioned whether the tree has any heritage value to the community, as the association also asserts.

But there's one passage in the letter that really seems to have irked the tree's advocates.

"The Owner will pursue all civil remedies available if any purported nomination [of the maple as a protected heritage tree] is is accepted or approved," the letter reads.

"These remedies include an application for an injunction, an application for judicial review, and a lawsuit seeking damages for the frustration of the Owner's private property right  to redevelop the Subject Property."

'I was blown away'

One of the the advisers to the Long Branch Residents Association, former Ontario Municipal Board adjudicator Barbara Heidenreich, was so upset by the letter that she has filed an objection with the Law Society of Ontario.

She described the letter as "pages of bullying, intimidation ... denigrating our qualifications.

"I was blown away," she said.

The tree, referred to in the neighbourhood as the Black Barn Maple, has sat in the yard of a Long Branch home for generations. But its days may now be numbered. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

"To be honest, any kind of bullying of citizens who are trying to exercise their right to comment on something — that's not appropriate. I was extremely angry," she said. 

But lawyer Mark Klaiman says the letter is nothing more than "a professional courtesy;" that those who try to block his client's project should know what the homeowner's position is.

"Ms. Heidenreich may have felt slighted by the letter but I can't control how people feel about letters that any lawyer sends to anybody," Klaiman told CBC Toronto.

"How they react is how they react. All I can do is represent my client's interests."

As for the complaint to the law society, Klaiman says he's heard nothing about it.

Barbara Heidenreich, a former OMB member who acted as an adviser on heritage trees to the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association, believes the Black Barn Maple should be saved because of its significance to the local community. (Barbara Heidenreich)

A spokesperson for the law society said information on complaints and investigations is kept confidential unless it results in a public hearing, which has not happened in this case.

The controversy began about four years ago when the owner, who would speak only through Klaiman, applied for a minor variance to have the small house on the lot torn down, and replaced with a much larger structure.

 That would mean cutting down the tree, which sits squarely in his backyard.

Although the city officially objected to the plan originally, a committee of adjustment sided with the homeowner.

That's when the neighbourhood association launched an appeal of the committee's decision to the TLAB.

The appeal was heard between February and April. A decision has not yet been rendered.

"It's not that you can't make change," said Carmichael. "But we're looking for sensitive change."

Sandy Donald, a member of the LBNA, said the tree deserves protected status because it's meant so much to the community for so long.

He said an LBNA arborist judged the tree to be about 160 years old. It once grew close to a black barn, long destroyed, and was a landmark that travellers heading into the city from the west used to judge how close to Toronto they were.

If the homeowner's application is approved, Donald said his group may have one last ace up its sleeve. He said the general manager of the city's parks department has the power to unilaterally deny an application to cut down a tree.

But in an email to CBC Toronto, city staff said no application to destroy the tree has yet been received by the city.

'Still hopeful'

"If and when the City receives such application, the City will review the application considering the criteria set out in the tree by-law and in accordance with its current policies and procedures," the statement reads.

But it appears likely that once an application to destroy the tree is received, it would not be opposed by the city.

The local councillor, Mark Grimes, said in a statement to CBC Toronto that he has "had countless meetings and explored every possible avenue to save this tree, but it's located on private property within the owner's as-of-right building footprint, so the City is limited in what it can do legally. 

"I'm still hopeful all of this media attention and public pressure will encourage the owner to put forward a plan that saves the tree," Grimes's statement reads.


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