County of Essex looking to implement policy requiring tree inventory and preservation plan for development proposals

The County of Essex is looking to draft and implement a policy into the County Official Plan that would require a tree inventory and preservation plan be conducted as part of any background studies for development proposals.

This would have developers provide a reimbursement plan in the form of new trees or financial compensation.

The County took first steps towards implementing this policy at the April 3 regular meeting, when Essex County Council directed Administration to consult with ERCA on the feasibility of reviewing and enhancing the Clean Water Green Spaces Program with an aim at achieving an accelerated rate of natural restoration in the County, then provide a report back to Council.

Further, Essex County Council directed Administration to bring back a report and draft by-law/policy to meet the obligations of the Municipal Act with regard to the protection and enhancement of tree canopy.

These decisions followed direction provided last year that had County Administration review the feasibility of a tree cutting and site alteration by-law pertaining to designated protected natural heritage features and land identified on the natural environment overlay in the Essex County Official Plan and report back to County Council with recommendations.

Rebecca Belanger, Manager of Planning Services, provided additional information regarding the feasibility of a Natural Heritage Areas Preservation By-Law.

During the November 1 meeting, when this was first discussed, she noted, it was discussed that the County does not have the staffing resources to enforce a Natural Heritage Areas Preservation By-Law.

The County’s Planning Group was consulted around that time, and it was determined local by-law enforcement would also not have the ability to take on enforcement of such a by-law.

As an alternative to a Natural Heritage Areas Preservation By-Law, Belanger suggested that an additional policy could be drafted and implemented into the County Official Plan which could state that as part of any background studies for development proposals, a tree inventory and preservation plan could be required to assess any healthy trees on the property for removal as part of the development and provide a reimbursement plan in the form of new trees or financial compensation.

This, Belanger added, will essentially accomplish the same thing as a Natural Heritage Areas Preservation By-Law; just not through regulation, but a policy process.

“This additional policy will enable the County and local Planning Departments, through the Planning Approval process, to accomplish the same thing as the By-Law,” Belanger said, adding any funds collected or approved tree removals would be utilized for strategic plantings in priority restoration areas.

She explained that ERCA implemented the Clean Water Green Spaces program several years ago with annual funding from regional municipalities. That funding program could be reviewed to determine if ERCA could make modifications in collaboration with the County.

Patricia McGorman, President of the Canada South Land Trust, spoke to the County’s consideration of preparing and Implementing a Natural Heritage Areas Preservation By-law.

“What we have here in Essex County is very rare, because we are part of the Carolinian life zone,” McGorman told members of County Council. “As we know, in an agricultural community, the weather patterns that we have here, and conditions, and the soils that we have – and our abundance of fresh water – really add to what we can grow here.”

That includes diversity in local forests.

“I am very concerned we are not acting fast enough to get something implemented that is more effective than the by-laws currently in place, and actions taken to utilize other pieces of legislation that fall under the purview of the Provincial Government, as well as the Federal Government, to ensure these last refuges of endangered species habitat we are losing – we are down to about three-percent or less of forest cover – [lasts],” she noted, adding the UN requirement is 15-percent to ensure the life process continue.

Lack of connectivity, she added, causes fragmentation as “islands of green,” isolate genetics. Forests are not just trees, she added, they are complex ecosystems. “When we take down a forest, we are eliminating some very important pollinators, as well as the plants there that species rely on.”

McGorman wanted to excite County Council on what it can share with the next generation.

Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara agreed with Belanger’s approach. He added lower-tier municipalities also have a responsibility to look after tree coverage.

Lakeshore Deputy Mayor Kirk Walstedt liked this avenue better than a policy that would prevent cutting trees. He remembers years ago when the County considered a tree-cutting by-law. It was just being talked about and many woodlots were lost as many property owners believed their rights were being infringed upon.

Kingsville Deputy Mayor Kim DeYong asked about the benefit of local municipalities using the County Official Plan in instances not coming to the County-level for approval.

Belanger noted municipal Official Plans have to operate in conformity with the County Official Plan, this policy would apply to the County and municipalities. The Tree Inventory and Reimbursement Policy could be utilized for all Planning Act Applications, even ones where the County is not the approval authority.

DeYong believes this is great language to have in the Official Plan.

ERCA CAO Tim Byrne noted he has had the opportunity to speak to County staff in terms of this report. With the implementation of Bill 23, realignment of the Clean Water Green Spaces program had to take place, and the Conservation Authority had to use contribution agreements in order to allow it to continue.

He said there has been success with that, with many municipalities choosing to continue funding.

“We are looking forward to some continued dialogue with all municipalities on the move forward with this extremely important venture,” Byrne said. “A few dollars from each municipality, in a pooled resource, goes a long way to have a big carrot towards getting this problem resolved.”

Sylene Argent, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Essex Free Press