Much Ado About………Trees?

Toronto Politics

8 minute read

August 12, 2020

Should we talk about freedom?

There’s a lot of different definitions and interpretations here.

Think: William Wallace, or if you want, Mel Gibson in Braveheart.  

We all remember that last scene in Braveheart when Wallace was tied to the chopping block in the village square, and all he had to do was submit to the King, and perhaps his life would be spared.  Instead, he infamously yells, “Freeeeeedom!” and is decapitated.

Think: the United States of America.

Their obsession with freedom, or the concept therein, has resulted in millions of people refusing to wear masks during a pandemic, some of whom have famously died of the virus itself!  Oh, the irony!

My wife’s cousin lives in Georgia, born and raised.  His take on this debate, which of course, has to take the Constitution into consideration (is there a more ridiculous piece of 250-year-old paper?) is that people should wear masks, but it shouldn’t be mandated by the city, state, or country.

I suppose I see the logic, but at the same time, I don’t.

Many of the freedoms we enjoy are based on historical precedence.  Many are innate.  Some are earned.  Some are privileges.  And in the end, many, if not most, could be debated.

So what about the right of a property owner to do as he or she sees fit with that property?

I know, this is a massive grey area.  I can’t put a billboard on the roof of my house, nor should I be permitted to.

And in different jurisdictions, property rights can tie into other rights, like, oh, I dunno, say – shooting a person on your front lawn with an AR-15 assault weapon simply because they stepped on to your property.  There are two rights bleeding into one!  No pun intended…

But back here on planet earth, we recognize that owning a property has inalienable rights, but at the same time, we have no choice but to look to the experts for guidance on what we can and can’t do.

Can I pave over my front lawn and put up a basketball court?

Can install a permanent bio-dome over my backyard?

Can I legally operate a hair salon from my garage?

Can I dig a large pit in the middle of my driveway, and encourage my children to dig to the centre of the earth?

All of these seem like “no’s” to you and I, but somewhere out there, in our jurisdiction or another, there’s a home-owner clamouring for the right to do so.  And somewhere out there, there’s a place that would allow this too!

Back in February, I wrote a blog called “Much Ado About Parking Pads”

I was shocked by the response!  Not only because such a boring topic resulted in over sixty comments from the readers, but also because so many of the readers knew an awful lot about parking pads!

The inherent “right” to park a car on your property is anything but.  Depending on whether or not you’re taking a spot of street parking away from the public, by cutting the curb and disallowing people to park there, your “rightful” gain would come at a loss for the public.  Many readers commented on the issues with water drainage if a pad was created where it shouldn’t be, or in a way that isn’t conducive to proper drainage.

Other readers felt that misery loves company, and if they don’t have a parking pad, then their neighbour shouldn’t.  Or vice versa, it’s not fair for their neighbour to have one if they can’t to.

There’s seemingly no shortage of topics we could explore when it comes to the rights of a property owner, and don’t even get me started on the absurd amount of property tax I pay, only to have to buy larger garbage and recycling bins, and then cross my fingers that the “sanitation experts” pick up my trash, if it’s not too heavy or cumbersome, or doesn’t stick out of the bin, or doesn’t offend them in some way.

But what about cutting down a tree?

Is that a right?

I mean, it’s your tree.  It’s on your property.  Front yard, back yard, side yard – it’s all the same, right?

Oak, maple, birch, or cedar – doesn’t matter, right?

How about the size?  The foilage?  The amount of shade the tree provides, or how many branches are hanging over the neighbour’s fence?  Oh boy, there’s a doozie!  Can a neighbour trim your tree?  Let’s not even go there.

You can’t imagine just how many issues trees cause in the city of Toronto, and how crazy people will go to protect a tree that they think is being unfairly targeted – especially when it doesn’t belong to them!  “High fences make great neighbours,” and all that, but just how many times have we heard about neighbours arguing over trees?

Of course, it could be worse.  Have you heard of Harvey Updyke?  He’s a football fan.  Actually, that’s an understatement.  A fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Harvey went to the Auburn campus in 2010 after Auburn had beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and poisoned Auburn’s century-old oak trees, for which their campus is famous!  Then he called into a radio show two weeks later and bragged about it.  He was promptly arrested, fined, and jailed.  He died last month, which is rather timely.

Last month, I had a tree cut down on my property.  It was probably between thirty and fifty years old, if I had to guess.  It was dead, and still standing, and I wanted to ensure I took it down before it fell on my house.

I took a few videos and a lot of photos, and planned to share that today.  But low-and-behold, an article came out in the Toronto Star on Tuesday dealing with exactly this topic!  The timing couldn’t be better, even if Harvey Updyke had a say in the matter.

This article uses the word “absurd” in the title, to explain the process of removing trees, and debating the trees’ removal.

If you’re like me, you assumed that the “absurdity” had to do with the idea that a property owner has to jump through hoops to get permission to remove a tree from his or her own property!

But then I realized this article was in The Star, and read it.

Here it is in full:



“Toronto’s Trees Provide More Than Just Shade. So Why Are City Council’s Tree Removal Debates So Absurd?”
Matt Elliott
Toronto Star

Big number: 14, the number of tree removal permit items considered by Toronto council so far in 2020. The trees have an 8-4-2 record. Eight decisions went in favour of keeping the trees, four went for removal, two decisions were delayed.

Things got prickly at the July meeting of Toronto council. It started when Coun. James Pasternak demanded an apology after Coun. Gord Perks used the word “foolhardy” in a speech. “For Councillor Perks to call people who don’t agree with him ‘foolhardy’ is totally inappropriate,” said Pasternak. Coun. Frances Nunziata, who serves as council’s speaker, echoed Pasternak’s request for an apology.

But Perks chose to stick to his point. “Councillor, as much as I have been tempted on occasion to call you foolhardy, I did not. I said, ‘If you are foolhardy enough to believe this.’” He added that he wouldn’t apologize for “citing science.”

That branched into a linguistic digression on whether describing someone’s belief as foolhardy is the same as calling someone a fool. Neither side backed down.

The roots of all this friction? You’ll never guess. It was a debate about whether council should grant a permit to remove two spruce trees in front of a property on Kane Avenue in the Silverthorn neighbourhood.

It wasn’t the first time a council debate about trees got tense. So far in 2020 council has considered 14 tree removal permits on both private and public property, many of them concluding with razor-thin votes.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. You’re probably thinking something like, “Hey, wait, why is the government of Canada’s largest city spending so much time, in the middle of a pandemic, squabbling about individual trees?”

That’s a darn good question. Because, yes, this is all very absurd. But there are things you need to know about why this happens.

First, trees matter. More than just providing some nice shade during hot summers, trees provide quantifiable benefits. City hall’s urban forestry division says Toronto’s 11.5 million trees generate $55 million in annual impacts, including $8.2 million in energy savings, $37.6 million in savings related to pollution removal and $4.8 million in savings by helping to absorb stormwater.

Recognizing this, Toronto council has a longstanding target of covering 40 per cent of Toronto with tree canopy, but getting there hasn’t been easy. According to the latest report on the state of Toronto’s trees, between 2008 and 2018 the canopy increased by an estimated 1.8 percentage points. These days, the city estimates the canopy at somewhere between 28.4 per cent and 31 per cent — still well short of the goal.

To make progress, not only does city hall need to step up their tree planting efforts, they also need to protect the trees that already exist, even if homeowners would like them out of the way. (About 60 per cent of Toronto’s trees are on private property.)

That’s the basis for the city’s permit process for tree removal. Letting homeowners go wild with an axe —in their yards and on adjacent city-owned boulevards — would have negative implications for everybody, so city hall requires that urban forestry staff inspect trees cited for removal. If trees are deemed healthy, a permit to remove will generally not be granted.

Property owners can appeal a denied permit, however, which is what triggers the council debates.

Few councillors celebrate this process, but changing it could prove more contentious than the already-contentious debates over the permits.

Some, like conservative-minded Coun. Stephen Holyday, tend to support granting permits for removal of trees on private property. In January, he tried (and failed) to convince councillors to support a motion that would have looked at loosening the rules for removing private trees, so long as homeowners took responsibility for planting additional replacement trees.

Other councillors have argued that the matter should be left entirely in the hands of the tree experts at city hall, leaving politicians out of it.

But until council votes for a new policy, the absurdity of council’s tree debates will continue, and often not to the benefit of the tree canopy.

The two spruces at the centre of the Perks-Pasternak argument? A property owner wanted to remove them to make way for a driveway. Despite Perks’s point that it would be foolhardy to believe any new trees planted to replace these mature trees would provide the same benefit, his motion to deny the removal permit lost on a 7-15 vote.

Two more trees gone, cut down by an absurd process.




That branched into a linguistic digression…”

Oh, I see what the author did there.  Nice pun!

But is it safe to say this article has a “side?”  A “slant,” if you will?

Yeah, I think the author is one of those people – I can’t remember the term – something to do with affection and trees?  In this case, literally and figuratively.

To each, their own.

I howl at our neighbours south of the border for their “freedom” to keep rocket launchers in their basements, and they think I’m naive.  But by the same token, the author of the article above might think I’m naive for suggesting that a property owner should be free, or more-free, to do as they please with trees.

I think there’s a middle-ground somewhere between saying, “All trees must remain in place,” and “Property owners should do as they like, whenever, wherever.”  But in the case where an owner wants to cut down a tree to widen a driveway, if the curb is already cut, and a parking space wouldn’t be taken off the street, then whats’ the problem?

Oh, the problem is that there is one less tree.

But it’s the property-owner’s tree.

Grey area?  Or black and white?  If the latter, then which side of the oak leaf does your opinion lay?

From the article:

To make progress, not only does city hall need to step up their tree planting efforts, they also need to protect the trees that already exist, even if homeowners would like them out of the way. (About 60 per cent of Toronto’s trees are on private property.)

But to what extent?

A city-wide mandate to “grown the tree canopy” would conflict with a property owner’s rights to some extent.

Are we trying to find a middle-ground here?

From the article:

But until council votes for a new policy, the absurdity of council’s tree debates will continue, and often not to the benefit of the tree canopy.

Not according to that statement.

The debates are absurd, apparently.

We should simply look to protect the tree canopy, first and foremost, at all costs.  No debate.  No rights of property owners.  Just the tree canopy, please and thanks.

I don’t like absolutes.  But unfortunately, grey areas take more time to sort out, and when this concerns government, it means more resources and more costs.

When I sat out on my back porch, getting shit on by birds that perched on the dead tree branches above, getting rained on by bits and pieces of dead limbs, often gnawed and pecked at by woodpeckers, I feared that the City of Toronto would do something stupid – like not let me cut it down, even though it’s my house, my property, and it would be my cost.  I also wondered if they would force me to plant a silly little sapling in the middle of my yard, for essentially no reason, except that we “need more trees.”

My house.  My property.  My yard.  Their sapling.  Hardly seems productive, in my opinion.

Thankfully, I was granted an “exception” by the city, and I’ll share that with you on Friday.

For now, let me hear it from those who believe that the trees own the city, and we are merely tenants…

Written By David Fleming

David Fleming is the author of Toronto Realty Blog, founded in 2007. He combined his passion for writing and real estate to create a space for honest information and two-way communication in a complex and dynamic market. David is a licensed Broker and the Broker of Record for Bosley – Toronto Realty Group

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  1. Jimbo

    at 11:05 am

    If it was dead and the city said no, then I would do everything in my power to have them accept legal liability for any damage it could cause in the future…..

  2. Izzy Bedibida

    at 12:50 pm

    One of mom’s friends experienced bureaucratic hell trying to get an old pine tree removed that was becoming a danger to the house. City officials denied her claim even though the tree was a danger to the house. The bylaw kept being thrown back to her. Hers son’s finally got a compromise after taking countless days off work. The officers realized that it was not the “old widow” with “limited English” that could be pushed around. City made money off of the various permits and permit appeals this required.

  3. Jennifer

    at 1:58 pm

    i dont understand why someone can freely cut down trees of less than a certain diameter, but not bigger ones. we dont care about smaller or baby trees, yet want people to plant replacements? someone know the logic?

  4. Libertarian

    at 2:04 pm

    Here in East York, trees in the front yard are owned by the city, so they come around and trim them, so that saves me the trouble of doing so.

    Matt Elliott is the biggest government groupie I have ever seen. He makes the rest of the Toronto Star and the NDP seem like Republicans. To him, the government should do everything.

  5. Appraiser

    at 3:07 pm

    Trees once did own the city.

    Now it’s cars.

    Which do we prefer?

  6. Ed

    at 3:41 pm

    Toronto’s tree hugging by-law.
    Here in Welland if you have a tree on your property that you want cut down, you cut it down.
    No by-law, no permits, none of that crap.

  7. TOplanner

    at 4:13 pm

    Let’s assume that we all like trees in theory, and would rather live on leaf, tree-lined streets than not. If we like trees and want to keep them generally, then, would you rather:

    A) the City prevents property owners from cutting down trees (status quo)
    B) the City lets property owners do what they want and then has to raise taxes in order pay for the additional trees needed to offset all the trees cut down
    C) the City allows property owners to cut down trees so long as they are replaced with new trees (in order for a rule like this to have any effect, they will then need to hire staff to monitor and enforce – $$)
    D) some other option that somehow maintains trees at minimal cost and maximum ~freedom~… which is… ?

  8. JL

    at 4:34 pm

    I certainly don’t want people to have the freedom to cut down some giant oak or maple on their property just because they feel like it (and that would take decades to regrow), but then again, if its some dying/dead or small tree that can easily be replaced you’d want to avoid the bureaucracy for what should be an obvious decision. There should be a middle ground here, but sadly to provide the protection for the former you’re likely stuck having to put up with the bureaucracy in the latter.

  9. Kyle

    at 7:32 pm

    I love trees, and think they are actually good for resale, so economically it is generally better to keep large trees. That said, trees actually need to be gradually renewed for the canopy to remain healthy. On many of Toronto’s old streets, the trees are reaching the end of their lifespan. And in many cases the trees are the same species and all planted around the same time the original neighbourhood was developed, so they’re susceptible to being wiped out by pests (like how Dutch Elm, Emerald Ash Borer did) or even if they live full lives they will all expire relatively close in timing or become liabilities and risks for damage. Then when you have to replace them you have to start all over with saplings.

    IMO, it’s better to allow people to take down sick or older trees as long as they plant at least one new one. If you want to increase the canopy, charge them a fee equivalent of the City cost to grow and plant a new tree in a park or on a boulevard.

  10. Alex

    at 9:15 pm

    I have to confess I killed reasonably healthy tree at my backyard 3 years ago just before I rented the house to my tenants. For me, it was simple – just another 1 or 2 years and city wont let me cut it down if I want to because the tree trunk diameter would be over the board and I will be needing permit and have to pay city for the right to cut down my tree. In my own backyard. During the process the Forestry and Recreation guy showed up because some neighbor reported me. Lucky me, I knew what I was doing and he left after half an hour of taking measurements and pictures. I noticed one thing in Toronto – only wealthy neighborhoods have a good canopy coverage because not everyone is ready to spend a few thousand dollars for arborist to prune their trees (!!) every 3 or 4 years. It is the same as second hand car. Every few years… My current 70 yo lady neighbor is crying when she has to pull out the wallet and “distribute” her wealth to “certified” arborists. My advice to all owners- plant something that you can manage by yourself and cut it down before it is too late. Repeat. And do not sign for that city-sponsored tree planting program-scheme ( at front yard ) because you can never get rid of that tree if you do not like it 5 years later. Never. You are just giving away your rights to your front yard for a less than hundred dollars. Plant something that could not be higher that 20-30 ft at maturity and you can handle yourself. Serviceberries ( Amelanchier ) are natives and look nice IMHO, but could be messy because of fruits. They feed local wild life. Anything compact will do – so check the tree height and width AT MATURITY, not in 10 years time.

  11. jeanmarc

    at 10:20 am

    I once owned a property with an apple tree in the backyard. In the first two years, I ended up bagging over 40+ leaf bags full of apples to be picked up by the city in the fall. Imagine each bag weighing over 30-40lbs. I am sure the leaf pick up guy was pissed off. In the third year, I ended up hiring a company to remove it as it was an overgrown apple tree. I believe the trunk was over the 30cm diameter in size so they were accountable for any bylaw issues. I was so fed up of bagging the apples which were being chewed up by squirrels, rabbits and raccoons.

  12. Paully

    at 11:23 am

    Anyone who cries about the cutting of a tree should just shut up and plant a new tree in their yard. If you are not willing to plant a tree, then you shouldn’t complain about what someone else wants to do with their tree.

    Trees don’t live forever. Today’s mature street and yard trees were once only seedlings. If you want a forested city for the future, plant a tree today.

    I have planted close to thirty trees on my lot over the past five years! I have grown out elm and maple seedlings and offered them for free to neighbours, with very few takers. Yet, when a lot gets posted for a possible mature tree removal, so many whine and cry about it.

  13. Marty

    at 7:54 pm

    Can I dig a large pit in the middle of my driveway, and encourage my children to dig to the centre of the earth?

    – this needs more exploring in your next blog post.

  14. Ruth

    at 1:00 am

    People who have not gone through the tree application process or had to appeal a decision made by the city, do not really understand the process and all that it involves. People who have not cared for trees for many years on their own property do not know all that is involved in maintaining a tree.
    Trees are living things. That means they grow. And that means situations can change whereby a tree’s site was suitable when the tree was younger, but not when it became very large. That doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to the tree bylaw.
    Some of the councillors believe that Forestry, what some councillors call “the experts,” are the ones whose opinions have the final say about whether a tree can be removed or not. But those “experts” are bound by the tree bylaw when they make their decisions. The tree bylaw is very limiting. The tree bylaw is one of the problems!
    The city says that trees are important. So why must the property owners with trees be the ones to uphold the tree canopy? Why are property owners who have no trees given the freedom not to have trees?
    What about people who purchased their homes before the tree bylaw existed? Now, one day, they are not allowed to remove a tree anymore!
    The city is punishing the very people who have had trees growing on their properties for decades. Yes, punishing them with a very restrictive bylaw. For instance, if you apply to have a tree removed and your application is denied, then you can appeal. Once you appeal, and should you win to be able to remove your tree, then you must replace your one tree with at least FIVE trees! And then you are have to plant a tree of a certain size, from a specific list of trees they give you and in only certain places on your property. No room on your property? No problem! Then you have to pay the city about $580 for each tree you don’t plant on your property!
    I have had trees on my property for 4 decades. I think the city should be happy about that. Instead I don’t feel appreciated for it, but punished by the tree bylaw.

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