Tree debate postponed until October

Prince Albert city council gave tentative support to revamping the public notice and consultation process for major public works projects, but they’re a long way from determining what exactly that will look like.

Council voted by a 7-1 margin to postpone the vote on a Notice of Motion that called on city administration to explore all options for preserving the community character and urban canopy when performing utility replacements and repairs or street paving projects. The motion also called on administration to “provide adequate notice to residents” when more than three trees were removed as part of an upgrade project.

Coun. Evert Botha brought the notice forward after complaints that more than 100 trees were scheduled to be cut down on 12 Street East as part of a four block water line replacement and street widening project. Botha left Monday’s council meeting early after he was notified during the meeting that a close friend had passed away.

Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp moved the Notice of Motion forward at his request, but later asked that the final vote be postponed after several councilors said they wouldn’t support the proposal.

“I think he needs to be here,” Lennox-Zepp told council. “This should not just be wiped out.”

The motion will be back on the agenda for the next regular council meeting on Oct. 13. That’s the last regular council meeting before the Prince Albert municipal election in November.

When reached on Thursday, Botha said he hasn’t had time to review the comments from his fellow councilors.

Couns. Blake Edwards and Don Cody were the motion’s most vocal opponents. Both said they sympathized with residents who lost their trees, but added that the water main replacement and street widening projects were more important. Both argued the City should have the right to remove trees if administration deems it necessary, even if local residents don’t like it.

As part of the water line replacement, city crews are removing 39 lead service connections, and Cody said the City could face lawsuits if the work wasn’t completed.

“To be able to do something, we have to take the trees down, unfortunately,” Cody told council. “That’s a very sad situation, but that is simply what had to happen. I don’t like to take the trees down, true, but at the same time, I think we have a responsibility, sometimes, to do things that are not quite what residents expect, but have to be done for the safety of our citizens.”

Other councilors gave the motion a more lukewarm reception. Both Dennis Ogrodnick and Ted Zurakowski said they would consider creating a policy that governed how much time residents should receive before work starts. However, neither felt Botha’s motion addressed those concerns.

“If we had a policy and we took it upon ourselves to get a policy, then this might have not happened as quick as it happened, so we’re partially to blame,” said Ogrodnick, who grew up in the Midtown area. “Every single one of us as councillors are partially to blame for what happened and how upset some of those residents were.

“I empathize with the residents who are passionate about their trees and who have lost their trees, but I don’t think this motion addresses their concerns.”

Botha’s absence kicked off a spirited procedural debate during the meeting. After hearing four councillors say they wouldn’t vote for the proposal, Lennox-Zepp asked to amend it. Her new motion would have called on city administration to create a communication policy, which would then be brought back to council.

Mayor Greg Dionne rules the amendment changed the Notice of Motion too much, and blocked it. However, he was prepared to accept a second amendment which would have changed a few words in the original motion, while still asking for a report.

Zurakowski challenged the chair after the second ruling, arguing that meeting rules didn’t allow for this amendment either. Council voted in favour of the challenge by a 5-3 vote, which blocked the second amendment.

A third motion to post-pone the vote until next meeting was successful.

The water line replacement and street widening project costs around $1.3-million, which works out to around $17,000 per property.

On Sept. 8, Public Works Director Wes Hicks told council the area was extremely difficult to work in, since a major SaskTel line ran underneath the street, which meant city crews needed more space to work with. There were also problems with the 39 lead connectors, many of which were underneath or almost underneath a tree.

Even if they worked around both problems successfully, Hicks said they would dig up the trees in a few years if they needed to make any repairs.

Hicks said they do everything they can to save trees when possible. Over the past eight years, he said there’s only one other instance where they’ve cut down a large number of trees during an infrastructure project.

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