Canadian Maple

Public Jurisdiction Over Privately-Owned Trees: A Matter of Opinion or Nationality?

In July, this blog posted about the disagreement among citizens in Portland, OR over proposed changes to their urban tree ordinances. At its heart, the conflict in Portland seems to center on whether the city government should have jurisdiction over privately owned trees. The majority of the commenters on the article felt that the city’s tree plan – which proposed adding new staff, doing centralized planning, and providing some limits on rights of private property owners – was at best unnecessary and at worst a property rights violation.

I was surprised as I read the article. I really don’t think Canadians would have these types of reactions.

I’m Canadian, so I can’t pretend I don’t have a bias on this issue. However, my experience is that Canadians accept the public good over property rights much more readily than citizens of the U.S. This comes from our strong “Red Tory” British tradition, and the fundamental differences between the two countries are most clearly expressed in our constitutions. The defining phrase of the U.S. Constitution is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” U.S. culture has a strong emphasis on the mythical “I,” individual rights, and personal property. This is one reason why U.S. Western myths are built around the lone cowboy and the John Wayne archetype: one man against the elements and threats from others, persevering due to his own efforts alone. The defining phrase of the Canadian Constitution, on the other hand, is the right to “peace, order and good government.” The collective “we,” the social contract of community, is an essential part of our national identity. Our Western myths are built around the Mounties, tasked with establishing order in a wild place.

Leda started a LinkedIn discussion in the Urban Forestry group to get a sense of whether others also feel there are fundamental differences in public attitudes toward trees in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. This completely unscientific poll yielded varying responses. Some people anecdotally agreed that private property concerns seemed to trump public good concerns in the U.S. more often than elsewhere (particularly in the UK and Canada). Other commenters pointed out that tree ordinances vary wildly from town to town and that trying to generalize on a national level is unhelpful. Others still were off topic entirely (hey, it’s the internet).

I’ve spent a lot of time working in the urban forestry community in Canada; here are a couple of examples of some of the typical tree by-laws that I see:

City of Toronto, ON

The intent of the city-wide Private Tree By-law is to protect trees situated on private property from being damaged or cut-down unnecessarily and to ensure the on-going health and well-being of the city’s urban forest. Additionally, the Private Tree By-law provides a standardized and equitable approach to protecting the city’s urban forest while helping to increase awareness of the environmental, aesthetic and economic benefits of trees. Additionally, the Private Tree By-law directly supports the City’s Official Plan, which recognizes the important contribution of trees to the quality of life in Toronto.

City of Vancouver, BC
This bylaw affects all private property owners in Vancouver wanting to remove a tree.

If you want to remove a tree, you need a permit to do so for every tree that has a diameter (width) of 20 cm (8″) or greater, measured at 1.4 meters (4’6″) above the ground. A tree trunk with a diameter of 20 cm (8″) will have a circumference of approximately 64 cm (25″).

I have rarely observed anyone make a peep about these laws being interventionist or over-reaching. If anything, a more typical reaction is, “shouldn’t we be doing more for trees?” This recently happened in Mississauga, where a new tree protection bylaw was passed that included an exemption for golf courses, much to the dismay of at least one city councilor.

Personally, I believe that strong by-laws and city policies that plan for and protect trees are essential to creating a mature, healthy, thriving urban forest. Since a large percentage of these trees actually grow on private property in most areas, this will necessarily mean that individuals will be impacted. But the effects needn’t be negative. I understand why some might resist this and feel that it’s an intrusion, but trees benefit an entire community – even when they are growing on private property. Air quality, shade, water management, crime reduction, and other benefits do not observe ownership boundaries.

I will freely admit that my opinion on the difference between attitudes in the U.S. and Canada toward tree protection is a generalization. I am not saying that no Canadian ever objected to having their private property rights curtailed by governments or that our approach is always better than that our friends south of the border – just different. Perhaps, like everything else in the world it’s just a matter of degrees. For example, small-c conservatives in Canada believe in national health care, crown corporations and regulated markets. South of the 49th parallel, however, they might be considered raving pinkos.

Proudly Canadian… sorry!

Michael James is the General Manager for DeepRoot Canada Corp. He is 100 percent Canuck.

Top image Flickr credit: Patrick Doheny

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