Updated Fort Erie tree removal bylaw includes hefty fines for rule breakers

In an effort to protect the town’s tree canopy, Fort Erie councillors have approved new rules governing the removal of trees on properties throughout the municipality.

At the February 12th council-in-committee meeting, municipal politicians approved a report that sought changes to the tree bylaw. The updates will require residents to seek permits in most cases where they wish to remove a mature tree from their property, require replacement plantings or cash-in-lieu, and includes stiff fines for those who break the rules.

Councillor Nick Dubanow came out as one of the strongest supporters of the updates. In the face of threats to the tree canopy, including most notably the destruction of the emerald ash borer, he said the town needs to take action.

“I’m never one who wants to regulate what individuals can do on their property,” Dubanow said. “But at the same time, I don’t think we can afford to lose one single healthy tree in this community, when, through no choice of our own…an invasive species came into our community and ravaged our tree canopy.”

Last year, council asked staff to consider updates to the bylaw, following a string of reported incidents of tree removals on properties that concerned residents and politicians.

“The community has made it loud and clear that natural heritage is very important,” said Mayor Wayne Redekop.

The old rules were fairly restricted in what the town governed, covering only areas between a half hectare up to one hectare. The Region’s Woodland Conservation Bylaw governs tree cutting in woodlands larger than a hectare, the staff report said.

With the updates, property owners must apply for a permit if they’re located within a natural heritage system and want to remove a tree of any size, or if they’re in the urban boundary and the tree meets a minimum 30 centimetres diameter at breast height (DBH) threshold. There are also added rules for trees of any size on lands that are in various development planning stages, as well as trees designated as a heritage tree or identified under the Tree Preservation Plan.

There are several exemptions and exceptions that could apply based on a property owner’s situation.

Permits for individuals outside the Natural Heritage System cost $50 for the first tree and $25 for any other trees under the same permit. Permit fees increase for those inside the Natural Heritage System as well as for corporations. There’s no application fee if it’s a dead or hazardous tree.

Penalties are steep for those who break the new rules, going as high as a $1,500 fine for those who destroy or injure a tree without a permit.

Overall, councillors were supportive of rules to protect the tree canopy. However, Councillor Ann-Marie Noyes was strongly opposed to the scope of the new rules. She worried that an attempt to prevent developers from clear cutting lands could end up hurting private homeowners more than anyone else.

“These aren’t the people we should be aiming this for,” she said. Between permits, replacement trees, and deposits, homeowners could end up spending hundreds of dollars simply to remove a tree on their own property, she said.

Even supporters of the updates acknowledged some potential issues. Redekop said he heard Noyes’ concerns loud and clear, but pointed out that the 30 cm DBH threshold is a pretty substantial size. “We’ve struck, what I think, is a pretty reasonable balance,” he said.

Dubanow suggested the fees and penalties might be problematic and in some cases property owners may just opt to pay the fine. Nevertheless, he said protecting the tree canopy is paramount and the loss of any part of the canopy should come with a good reason. “I think you’ve got to justify it, to all of us,” he said.

Redekop also pointed out that the updates could still leave room for potential developers, in some cases, to clear cut properties before making planning applications as a way to skirt the rules. As long as the trees were under the 30 cm DBH measurement, they could be removed without permit or consequence. As a solution, he suggested adding a stipulation that properties over a certain size would require a permit for the removal of any trees, regardless of size.

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