Residents fill NAW chambers to protest tree bylaw

Eganville — It was standing room only as close to 70 people showed up for last week’s North Algona Wilberforce Township council meeting where a heated discussion took place regarding a controversial tree cutting by-law which many in attendance said was an attack on their private property rights.

The main argument, delivered by three residents, was their fear the township by-law would restrict their individual freedom as to when and how they manage their private lands and forests.

When council voted unanimously to adopt the “Tree Canopy and Natural Vegetation Policy” on February 19, they did so in order to fulfill their legislative obligations as the province set a March 1 deadline for local governments to pass the controversial policy.

There was little fanfare or attention given to the by-law until nearby Laurentian Valley Township council attempted to pass a similar law. When that council met on March 19 to pass it, it was met with several members of the Renfrew County Landowners Association who opposed it. At the end of that meeting, Mayor Steve Bennett and council agreed not to pass the law and suggested that provincial ministry staff told them it would likely not be enforced.

When NAW Mayor James Brose officially began the council meeting last Tuesday evening, every seat in chambers was filled with very little standing room.

Just before the by-law issue came up on the agenda, Mayor Brose invited Jenna Schison to recite her speech about the value of a community library. Ms. Schison, a student at Eganville District Public School, was a recent winner in the Royal Canadian Legion Public Speaking contests.

Her speech provided a rather unique perspective on the value of small town libraries and when she finished, many in chambers rose and gave her a round of applause and congratulated her on efforts to inform the public of the importance of a library.

However, the goodwill and positive feeling in the room quickly faded away when Mayor Brose opened the floor to confirmed delegates to address the by-law, and it quickly became apparent they were not prepared to hold back their anger and disappointment with council on the issue.

Residents Oppose By-law

Daphne Keuhl was the first to speak and she immediately expressed how she and several NAW residents felt about the by-law.  

“We have been betrayed by our elected representatives when they passed the Tree Canopy By-law,” she said sitting from her chair. “I trusted this council would protect our rights, but I was gravely mistaken. The only thing under this by-law that you can cut is shrubs,” she said. “We need you as our mayor and councillors to protect our rights and rescind this by-law. Laurentian Valley voted it down and protected their residents.

“We pay very high taxes in NAW, and to lose our way of life and to use what is on our lands and to deprive the future generations on how to use the land, is unacceptable to me and no one is going to want to live in North Algona Township.”

When she finished, most in the gallery, about 50, stood and gave her a standing ovation. The applause could be heard by another group of residents outside chambers who could not enter the hall because of maximum occupancy.

Thin Edge of Wedge

Wilmer Verch was the second speaker and he made a number of suggestions on the changing of the wording in order to gain support among the residents opposed to it.

“Any obstruction of private property is a violation of an individual’s rights,” he said. “The passing of this by-law is only the thin edge of the wedge and it drives that wedge in to restrict activity on private land. The ratepayers elected you people to office and they pay taxes that pay you. You work for the ratepayers and I urge you to stand up for your rights and our rights. Rescind that by-law and allow residents to continue to maintain the beauty of the township the way they always have in the past.”

When he concluded, he held up a petition form and told council his sheet had 50 signatures opposed to the by-law and there were a number of sheets circulated prior to the meeting and the number would be over 100.

Kevin Clarke also addressed council and said the wording in the by-law applies to an urban setting and is not set out for rural Ontario.

“We are a rural township and we are not urban,” he said. “This by-law says we as landowners cannot cut without township’s permission. A numbered by-law is enforceable and why are you trying to fool the people by saying it is a policy. That is wrong and you know it. We do not want a policy because it can be enforced and we don’t want it and council has no business making policies about our private property.”

Council Responds To Residents

Councillor Doug Buckwald defended the by-law and read from a prepared statement indicating it was a very complicated, and for many, a very emotional issue and he wanted to make sure he presented facts accurately in his response.

“As of March 1 this year, the Municipal Act requires every municipality in Ontario to have a policy,” he said. “As a councillor, I have, as does every municipal councillor in Ontario, a responsibility to comply with such legal requirements, including those I might not necessarily agree with.

“Based on several phone calls I have received and media reports, there appears to be a great deal of public concern and frustration and much of that is from other people spreading rumours and inaccurate information on the issue. People have expressed concern the policy from cutting trees of a certain size and that is incorrect and the word harvest or cut does not appear anywhere in the policy.”

He went on to explain the difference between a policy and a resolution and stressed the word “cut” is not in the by-law and township staff cannot come on private land to enforce the by-law as there are no offences, restrictions or penalties contained in the by-law.

“I want to go on the record and state to you that I have no desire to restrict a property owner’s right to cut trees on their private property. And frankly folks, I am not dumb enough to pass a by-law that would restrict what I can do on my own property.”

Councillor Janet Reiche-Schonfeldt also addressed the issue, but unlike Coun. Buckwald, she had reservations of the by-law. She began by asking about wording in the policy compared to another version they received in their agenda.

CAO Andrew Sprunt was about to address her concern when some in the gallery began getting loud and Mayor Brose immediately knocked his gavel on the desk to address the crowd.

“We will have decorum in council please,” he said.

Mr. Sprunt explained he provided council with an amended policy that if they wish to include, it would require a Notice of Motion to go back and look at the policy and that council was in no way restricted on whether or not they wanted to use it, but it was merely an option.

Councillor Reiche-Schoenfeldt raised her concerns.

“Nothing is ever black and white and there are some grey areas in this policy that may be interpreted in a different way,” she said. “I am also worried about the word “protect.” It won’t be this council, but what if a future council comes in and decides if somebody wants to cut firewood, then they have to bring somebody in and mark it and decide if it can be cut. I feel it is important for us to do on our private property what we want.

“Most landowners in Renfrew County are responsible and careful on what we do and we treat our forests with respect. I do like some of the contents in the policy, but why not just put it on our website as a guide and not a policy.”

Several in the audience clapped to show their support for her, and Coun. Buckwald immediately asked her a specific question.

“Show me anywhere in this policy where it says we can tell people what to do,” he said.

“I still am worried about the word protect and what it means,” she said. “I get where you’re coming from, Doug, I really do, but to me this is a law and it could mean an by-law officer can come tell you they don’t like the way you are cutting down trees and I am against that.”

She said she understands how people in Toronto have concerns about the upkeep of their neighbourhoods and this by-law is an urban one that works for them.

“I feel Toronto is telling us what to do,” she said.

In one of the rare times there has been open disagreement between councillors on an issue, Coun. Buckwald challenged Coun. Reiche-Schoenfeldt to identify enforcement wording in the by-law.

“Show me a single word about restriction in here, except for the word protect,” he said.

“But there is a grey area,” she said.

“Where is the grey area, Janet, show me where we can enforce it…where is the list of offences…where are the list of penalties, and we don’t even have a bylaw officer.”

“It is a grey area,” she repeated.

The two councillors began exchanging their views, sometimes in a friendly, heated debate style but Mayor Brose quickly restored decorum when he tapped his gavel once again.

“I would ask councillors to speak one at a time please,” he said.

Councillor Melvin Berndt also had reservations about the wording.

“I don’t like the words private lands,” he said. “If we took that out I think that would make a lot of people here tonight happy. I protect my land and look after it as do a lot of people around here and it shouldn’t contain private land.”

Coun. Buckwald said the only way the current by-law could be changed was by the five elected members. At that moment a few people in the gallery began shouting “change it,” and others clapped to show support.

Once again Mayor Brose tapped his gavel.

“There will be order in chambers or I will have to end this meeting,” he said.

Some members began yelling out questions and Mayor Brose immediately addressed them.

“I cannot take questions from the floor as this is not a public meeting, it is a council meeting.”

Councillor Maria Robinson said it was obvious from the turnout there was great opposition to the by-law and inquired if and how it could be changed.

“I think as councillors we have a duty to go back and look at the wording as something that we should do and we owe our ratepayers that and I think that is what they are asking for,” she said.

No Hidden Agenda

Mayor Brose then read from a prepared statement.

“Very clearly this is a guide, it is not an enforcement tool or a prohibitive policy,” he said, “The township has no hidden agenda within this policy. One concern that is circulating is that the policy will stop private land owners from cutting down trees on their property. Nowhere in the policy does it state or imply that the township will ever have any plans to trespass on private lands.

“We passed a by-law and we were doing our due diligence to be in compliance with provincial legislation and this council will not be revisiting this by-law.”

He then read a prepared motion brought forward by Councillors Berndt and Robinson to rescind the by-law. However, Coun. Buckwald said the proposed motion was out of order as it would mean council has to vote against its own procedural by-law in order to pass it.

Council voted against the motion and after Mayor Brose informed council the only way to revisit the issue was through a Notice of Motion, Coun. Robinson immediately stated she would support that, and Coun. Buckwald seconded her request.

Mr. Sprunt informed council the only way to revisit the issue was for a councillor to issue a Notice of Motion after the meeting and it has to be in writing from a member of council. It must be received no later than Tuesday at noon, one week prior to a scheduled council meeting, and it would be placed on the agenda for discussion.

Council then proceeded on to the next agenda item. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, many residents left chambers and about 15 remained behind to talk to councillors after the meeting.

The meeting ended shortly after 9 p.m. and there were still many residents in the parking lot and several petitions were signed.

Margaret Stuart was one of the people collecting signatures that will be presented to council and she estimated around 250 people had signed the forms.