The old maple tree on the edge of the Island Savings Centre parking lot on James Street is coming down.
A small but passionate group of supporters of preserving the tree turned out July 26 to hear members of the Island Savings Centre Commission vote in favour of taking down the much-discussed tree, with only Alison Nicholson voting against the idea.
The motion said “that the big leaf maple tree be removed, and the redesign of the Island Savings Centre parking lot proceed in accordance with Attachment B of the General Manager, Community Services, July 12, 2016 report.”
The decision had been deferred from a July 13 meeting pending the receipt of more information, which was considered in the intervening two weeks.
Before the meeting, commission chairwoman Sharon Jackson clarified that commission members were not simply making a recommendation to the Cowichan Valley Regional District board, they were making the final decision about the redesign of the centre’s parking lot and the future of the old maple.
They learned that, even with an extreme effort to save the tree, “limb failure” was possible within five years. Implementing that support system would cost about $10,000 with a further $1,500 needed annually to maintain it. They had also taken another look at what keeping the tree would do to the safety features designed into the new parking lot.
Prior to the decision, the commission members gave the reasons behind their votes. Several had prepared notes or even written statements.
Jackson said that concerns about the preservation of the tree had “escalated to new and troubling levels” and there had been “one death threat [to a commission member] reported to the police.”
Commissioners have read all the material and continued to consider how best to improve the parking lot.
“We must weigh the safety features of the newly-designed parking lot with the loss of those features. Second is the health and the destiny of the maple tree.”
Arborists’ reports have stated that the maple tree is old, hollow and was likely to fail sooner rather than later, she said.
However, the commission’s duty as stewards is to look at a variety of things and “make the best decision for all of our citizens”.
Jackson said she’d had a number of phone calls from taxpayers who don’t wish to “spend one penny of their property taxes on a tree that is dying.”
She said that scores of conversations in the community had reinforced this.
Jackson said it was not a good idea to make decisions about safety “based on emotions”.
Members of the audience interrupted the commission many times with questions and interjections.
Committee vice-chairman Al Siebring drew the most flak for his comments, which included pointing out, “people are not lining up with open wallets to save this tree” and that “taking the easy way” would be to acquiesce with the vocal crowd he saw before him.
“But I’ve also received a lot of phone calls and I’ve had dozens and dozens of conversations. Everywhere I go, people want to talk about this tree. And they’re almost unanimous: they can’t believe we’re having this discussion. My social media feed has exploded on this thing. I’ve had 20,000 views on this in the past month. Again, the responses in both public and private messages are running about 90 per cent in favour of taking the tree down.”
Siebring said it was important to respect all of the input, but that comments about a decision to remove the tree “coming back to bite us at the next election” were not a deterrent.
“Fair enough. But I can’t sit here and make decisions about the governance of this municipality or regional district or commission based on my political future,” Siebring said.
The issue revolves around liability and doing the right things with taxpayers’ dollars, according to Siebring.
Lori Iannidinardo, another commission member, said she thought it was unfortunate that not enough value had been placed on trees in the past and that a different approach should be taken in future.
But she would be voting to take down this particular tree as neglect had brought it to the end of its life.
Jon Lefebure, while acknowledging that some people were very attached to the tree, pointed out that nearby Vancouver Island University had been able to save a few trees during its construction and had planted others that were now growing well.
It was time to remove a tree that had “reached the end of its productive life” and move on, he said.
The only Commission member to vote against the removal was Nicholson, who said she saw it as a push to make the community more livable.
“This has become an issue that has galvanized the community,” she said, adding that she thought, “this is not much to spend for something people clearly care about.”
A question period followed
Construction work has already started on the parking lot outside the Island Savings Centre, right beside the contentious tree, and will continue throughout the summer into the fall.
The commission also passed the following motion: “To provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured.”
Details on the working group will be provided in the near future.