COLUMN: Cutting through tree policy

Developers and landowners alike find ways to flout Surrey's bylaw.

Surrey’s tree retention policy is working, sort of – but developers and savvy landowners continue to find ways to drive logging trucks through it.

There is no question that most developers are trying harder to preserve at least some trees. This is particularly true if the property is being developed for apartments or townhouses, as there is usually a large enough piece of land not affected by building footprints.

However, where standalone homes (theoretically known as single-family) are being built, trees are rarely retained. In East Clayton,  which is a poster child for a number of bad planning and development decisions, hardly a tree that existed 10 years ago remains standing. This despite a tree retention bylaw that came into force in 2006.

Why? The tiny size of the lots; the fact that many homes have coach houses attached; and the unwillingness on the part of most developers to even think about tree preservation. There are a few shining exceptions, but they are rare.

On the former Bose farm, which was the focus of much public anger about tree-cutting, some trees were preserved. However, as much of the land is being developed for standalone houses, the number of trees preserved on individual lots is minimal.

Developers have figured out how to work with the bylaw, and if necessary, pay into Surrey’s green fund so they do not have to retain or replant trees.

However, there are a number of ways around the bylaw. One of the most common is to say the land is being cleared for farm purposes. The tree preservation bylaw does not apply to land that is to be farmed. While this makes sense within the Agricultural Land Reserve, many hundreds of trees have been cut on properties outside the ALR that will be developed eventually.

I live near two such properties, and estimate that 100 or more mature trees were cut on these properties. Both are 10 acres in size, and on one, hardly a tree remains. The other is about 70 per cent clear-cut.

No permits or replacement trees are required.

The landowners get another benefit. If they do farm these properties, as they say they will, their property tax bill will drop by about 90 per cent. Provincial rules make the assessment authority evaluate these properties as farms, and this farm exemption drops property taxes to very low levels. The amount of agricultural activity required on such properties is minimal – $2,500 in farm sales in one year for properties between two and 10 acres in size. Most agricultural properties in Surrey outside the ALR fit into this category.

Then there are some landowners who simply cut trees without any regard for permits or legality. While it is hard to do this in high traffic areas where there are a lot of people, there are a surprising number of properties in Surrey that are off the beaten track.

The Surrey bylaw is hardest on legitimate property owners who wish to cut down one or two trees. A recently repealed bylaw in Vancouver allowed property owners to cut one tree per year, simply by getting a basic low-cost permit. No arbourists were required, which usually boosts the costs of the exercise.

Vancouver has dispensed with this bylaw, but such an approach would make sense in Surrey. It would still keep the worst offenders at bay, while easing the punitive nature of the current bylaw on law-abiding citizens.

The city itself is exempt from the tree preservation bylaw.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.


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