Prince Albert city council voted down a motion at Tuesday’s executive committee meeting that would have stopped the practice of clear-cutting trees from Prince Albert boulevards prior to starting underground construction projects.
The decision came after residents living along 12th Street East protested a plan to cut down more than 100 trees as part of a water main replacement project in the area. There were also protests over how little notice residents received before crews began removing the trees.
While Mayor Greg Dionne voted against the motion to ban the practice, he said there’s no doubt residents should receive more than the one weeks notice given by the department.
“The start date should have nothing to do with communications,” Dionne said during Tuesday’s meeting. “(Admin) didn’t communicate because (they) didn’t know the start date. That doesn’t matter. We know what the project is when we approve it in the spring in the budget. That’s when (communication) should have started.”
Public Works Director Wes Hicks said residents were given one weeks notice before they started cutting trees because that’s the city standard for above-ground work. Any underground work requires two weeks notic.
Dionne said that wasn’t good enough, and said he would support a review of the communication policy.
“You’ve got to have time,” he told council. “Thirty days gives them lots of time. A week or two weeks doesn’t give you time. It sounds like we went in there with a SWAT team and hacked all the trees down and it’s too late to complain. Well, I don’t like that.”
Coun. Evert Botha, who represents the area, and mayoral candidate Dennis Nowoselsky both voted in favour of banning the practice of clear cutting trees on boulevards. So did Couns. Charlene Miller and Terra Lennox-Zepp.
Botha said residents on that block appreciate that the city needs to make infrastructure repairs, but want those repairs done in the appropriate manner. He said cutting down so many trees should require consultation with local residents, and added that the City needs to do better when it comes to communication.
“A lot of this boils down to the timelines that were forced on them,” he said during the meeting. “I think the most critical part of this is the communication … and the removal of the trees without other options being discussed.”
“I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the majority of the residents in their community were and are opposed to the removal of those trees without going through a consultation process,” he added.
Nowoselsky said cutting down too many trees is a common issue that keeps popping up in Prince Albert. He pointed to his own ward, where residents made several complaints after 20 trees were cut down because they interfered with powerlines.
Residents want crews to do everything they can to work around trees, Nowoselsky said, and the City needs to respond to that message.
City administrators say cutting down so many trees on 12th Street East is regrettable, but added that it’s always a last resort.
Over the past eight years, crews have only clear cut an area once because of underground work, and Capital Projects Manager Wes Hicks said that’s how they want it.
“We take that very seriously,” Hicks told council. “We never cut down trees helter-skelter. We always look at all alternatives to save trees. That’s always been our mandate.”
Hicks said the Midtown area is particularly difficult to work in, since a concrete encased SaskTel trunk line runs right down the middle of the street. That gave crews less room to work with, and forced them to widen the street so they could lay the new water line.
He added that it was possible to keep the street the current width, and plant new trees over the newly laid water pipe. However, he said they’d have to cut those trees down too as soon as there was a water main break.
“That is the main reason that we removed these trees,” he said. “It’s not because we wanted to. Like I said, in the last eight years we’ve done everything we can to save trees. I’ve always told my staff to look at every possible option.”
Local residents Allison Attree, Guy Lavigne and Jean Maksymiuk spoke at Tuesday’s meeting on behalf of homeowners and renters in the area. All three said cutting down the trees has irrevocably changed the street’s culture, and should never have been done without public consultation, especially with so little notice.
“If the trees are in the way, you have to remove them. I support that,” Lavigne told council. “But, there are ways of preserving the trees. I just think the City of Prince Albert has adopted a policy that the most immediate thing to do is remove all the trees and plant new ones, but what impact does that have on a heritage neighbourhood.”
“It seems to me that either (council) didn’t know that all these trees were going to be cut down, or (they’ve) given Public Works carte blanche to do whatever they want in our neighbourhood, and to look for the cheapest and easiest solution,” Attree added. “I don’t think that was best.”
The 12th Street area includes at least one municipal heritage property: the formal Land Titles Office constructed in 1892. Maksymiuk said the mature tree canopy and narrow road helped preserve the street’s historic character. Cutting down those trees and widening the street, she argued, was not in keeping with a proactive approach to protecting that heritage.
Council spent roughly one hour and thirty minutes debating and listening to presentations about cutting down the tree canopy. They also rejected a motion that would stop street widening projects if it required trees to be cut down unnecessarily, and another that called for “timely and constructive engagement of community and stakeholders” before putting out tenders.
They passed one motion that banned rolled profile sidewalk designs on 12th Street East, which they believe will help enhance the existing historic character.
Some trees slated for removal are still standing. That’s because construction crews may not have enough time to complete the entire water main replacement project before winter.