The tree at Humboldt, Wharf and Government Streets was chopped down in January to make room for a pedestrian scramble intersection. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Tree activists call for better transparency after Humboldt Street tree removal

A citizen-led report to the city suggests nine steps Victoria staff could change in the future

A citizen-led report is asking the City of Victoria for more transparency and defined policies in tree removal, following the removal of the Humboldt Street tree in January.

The 40-year-old white birch tree was cut down on Jan. 28 to make way for the new pedestrian scramble crosswalk and two-way bike lane. However, before it was cut down citizens protested its removal, citing that they weren’t properly consulted.

The City replied, saying that they’d looked at alternative options, and that removal was the most effective choice. The City also maintained they’d conducted public outreach on the design.

In an interview with Black Press Media on Jan. 21, Fraser Work, director of engineering and public works said at the end of the day the tree had to go.

READ MORE: ‘Heart of the city’ tree comes down in Victoria

“When we looked at all the biggest dimensions we had to balance, we realized after different looks and compromises that we wouldn’t be able to make it work,” Work said. “If you were going to put a tree in an urban environment you wouldn’t put it there; they’re all wrapped around underground infrastructure. It’s not good for the tree, or for the next person who flushes their toilet.”

Nonetheless, Mariann Burka, a retired civil servant and author of the report, felt she wanted more information into how decisions were made. She submitted two Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requests, and was surprised by what she found.

“If anything was explored it was only one alternative, and the exploration was pretty minimal. It was not a high level of professionalism as I’d thought,” Burka said.

READ MORE: Humbug on Humboldt, tree advocates call out progress

In the documents from the City, a hand-written pro and con list was provided in regards to keeping and removing the tree, with considerations such as cost, traffic impacts, aesthetics and business impacts considered.

“The little notes in the staff notebook is hardly what I’d call the quality of analysis of an alternative that I’d expect the city to do.”

City staff also drew up an alternative design where the tree was retained, but this idea was not put forward to the public as an option. Burka said that within public meetings the tree was never explicitly discussed, and that the alternative drawing was very small and hardly visible when presented in an on-line survey.

A display put forward by the City of Victoria explored an alternative option to cutting down the tree (bottom right, labeled B). Mariann Burka said this was not easily visible, or explicitly discussed (File contributed/ City of Victoria) td>

“I thought it was misleading to say they had ‘broad public support’ when tree removal wasn’t even brought up as an element of design,” Burka said. “Ultimately, the number of people who signed the petition to save the tree in less than three days was more than the number of people they’d consulted with about the project over a period of two years.”

Burka also felt that any signage about the tree coming down was placed late and in a nondescript location.

“So many people thought that the fences around the trees were put up to protect them, not because they were coming down,” she said. “There wasn’t enough notice.”

In Burka’s report, she’s put forward nine recommendations which have been sponsored by the Community Trees Matter Network, a local group of tree advocates that has worked with the City before.

ALSO READ: Residents push back on downtown Victoria tree removal

Included in the recommendations are: the development of policy standards; the need for the city to show a “clear and compelling need for tree removal; the inclusion of measures to ensure that tree removal is the last resort; the provision of “full and explicit” disclosure of a tree removal at the earliest date possible; the expansion of who is considered “affected stakeholders” to include the general public; the creation of a tree advisory panel; the increase of a tree removal notice period; the alteration of tree removal notices to include more information, and the involvement of tree advocacy organizations while acting on these recommendations.

Burka and the Community Trees Matter Network submitted the report to the City, but staff were unable to respond about its receipt by the time of publication.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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