Edmonton to revisit proposed tree permit for construction projects after pushback from utility companies, infill groups

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Edmonton utility companies and infill developers are fighting back against a proposed permit requirement for construction around trees on public land.

Representatives from Epcor, Atco, Shaw Communications and the Infill Development in Edmonton Association (IDEA) told councillors Tuesday the planned permit could significantly increase costs and timelines for the many construction projects they are involved in near city trees.

Under the proposal, a permit and tree protection or preservation plan would be required whenever work is occurring within five metres of a boulevard and open space tree or within 10 metres of a natural stand of trees. This would include construction, demolition and excavation. There is currently no rule in place to proactively protect trees and enforce if there are any damages. Between January 2019 and April 2021, the city said 196 of about 300 worksites were found to have caused damage to nearby trees.

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The new procedure would require 8,000 permits and thousands of dollars a year for Epcor to complete its work, government relations senior manager Jeff Bertram estimated. He said Epcor supports a bylaw to protect the city’s urban trees, but a permit process would only add red tape to companies that have a proven track record of mitigating impact to trees. Epcor and the other utility companies are calling for an exemption in order to work with the city to ensure compliance without having to go through a long permitting process.

“The expense of creating a new permitting process at this scale would be borne by Edmontonians, whether it’s utility customers or taxpayers, and really have no public benefit. In addition to the expense to citizens from this process, we’re greatly concerned about the potential for delays to planned and emergency work and an increase in staffing required by the city and each utility company to administer this permitting process,” Bertram said.

In response to the concerns, council’s urban planning committee unanimously directed city staff to work with the affected parties in an attempt to address their concerns before the bylaw comes back at the end of August. One solution could be a blanket permit for emergency and routine maintenance work around trees that would require annual renewal and not individual permits for each activity. This could cover emergency repairs, preventative line maintenance and vegetation clearing.

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The city is also still working out an application fee for the permit process, which could range depending on the type of work. Research conducted by the city showed price points ranging from $96.25 up to $525. Fines would be issued to those not following the permit procedures, currently proposed at $500.

Coun. Ben Henderson said the amount of damage found from worksite inspections since 2019 shows there are lots of cases where tree protection isn’t considered a priority and this application process would help clamp down on enforcement, even if it might be a little inconvenient.

“I do think the need to do something proactive here so that we can make sure trees don’t get damaged, and it’s not just about going in after the fact is important. How we do that in a way that is the least invasive to people who are behaving I think is the challenge, but clearly we still have a significant problem here,” Henderson said. “This is not just something that’s about us today, it’s about protecting an asset that is for the next generation as much as it is for us.”

Mature trees make up about 15 per cent of the total inventory in Edmonton and are estimated to have a total monetary value of more than $900 million and annual ecosystem benefits of more than $10 million.

duscook@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dustin_cook3

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