Langford rushes a temporary tree bylaw into place

Mayor says council's hands were forced to take immediate action

Bare trees stand like telephone poles in Langford after a developer tried to deal with some trees before a tree protection bylaw came into effect. (📸 Zoë Ducklow)

Langford council held two urgent meetings this week to adopt a temporary tree bylaw, prohibiting tree cutting without a permit. The emergency bylaw was introduced on Monday and was unanimously passed on Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Two weeks ago, council announced plans to develop a tree management policy. Throughout the campaign, many of the new councillors promised that, if elected, they would implement a tree protection plan for Langford. It was a priority issue, but they had also promised a lot of open communication, robust consultation, and thoughtful decision making.

Staff were working on a draft, and were going to present it to council and the public in February, which is when the full public consultation would begin.

But last week, two developers jumped the gun and limbed several trees (removed all branches but left the trunks standing) on properties that don’t yet have development permits.

Langford staff interpreted this as a reaction to the upcoming bylaw, and—fearing more of the same—they recommended an immediate simplified and “very restrictive” bylaw with heavy financial penalties. It would only last for six months, giving council, staff, and the public time to work on the full tree management policy.

That simplified bylaw is what council passed in an unusual Wednesday afternoon meeting this week. It prohibits cutting down (or limbing) any tree 20cm or wider, unless it’s dangerous, and with some exceptions.

Fast-tracked emergency measure not what this council promised

This adoption happened faster than most bylaws passed by the previous Langford council, a pattern that was criticized loudly by many of the new councillors during the election campaign. The irony was not lost on the public, or the new council themselves.

“We did not want to be doing this right now, just so everyone knows,” Mayor Scott Goodmanson said as he opened the afternoon meeting. “Our hands were being forced by a small number [of people] that decided to step outside of the regulations and with tree removal.”

Even though the meeting was called with just two days' notice for 2:30pm on Wednesday—compared to Langford’s usual Monday evening time—25 people were there (and online) to speak. Most said they supported the bylaw, but many still had concerns, particularly about the cost implications.

The one exception to the full stop on tree cutting is dangerous trees—but to designate a tree dangerous, an arborist has to inspect the tree. That can run from $300 to $1,000, said arborist Dave Saunders.

Landowners won’t need a permit to cut dangerous trees, but if someone registers a complaint with the bylaw enforcement department, the homeowner would have to show a professional report confirming the tree had to be removed.

There’s also the concern that the new bylaw will overwhelm Langford’s bylaw enforcement team, or result in inordinately slow permitting. Staff don’t expect it to be a problem, they told council at the meeting, reiterating that this is designed to target the small portion of developers who don’t yet have permits.

The simplified bylaw isn’t adding a new tree cutting permit—permission to cut a tree will be linked to permits that already exist, like a building permit. For example, if someone wants to build a shed where a tree is, they can get permission to remove the tree through the building permit they need for the shed.

‘The trees still come down at the end of the day’

Saunders is concerned about more than just dangerous trees and permits, though. As an arborist he works with municipalities across the South Island that do have tree protection bylaws, and he said they don’t always work as intended.

“I have just cut down some of the largest trees in Saanich and Esquimalt recently, due to zoning requirements for development,” he told The Westshore.

Storm drainage systems, utility hookups, sidewalks and landscaping have forced some tree removals that could have been saved if the development bylaws were more flexible. It’s because those requirements take up space that then makes the tree untenable, something Saunders thinks a lot of local councillors don’t appreciate.

“The trees still come down at the end of the day [in municipalities with a tree bylaw],” he said. “If you want to retain trees you have to have space for them.”

The temporary bylaw passed on Dec. 21 will expire in June 2023, giving Langford council six months to work out the details of a more comprehensive tree management policy in the meantime.