Imagine the stress you’d experience if both sides of your property were reverberating with the sounds of whining wood saws and thudding hammers, for months on end. Imagine all the vehicles on the street. The dust. The toxic chemicals that float around when 70-year old homes are demolished and sent to landfill.
Welcome to the spring and summer of 2019 at 22 Gould Street.
Located in the enclave of streets north of the Metro grocery store at Wellington West and Carleton Ave., Don Runge and Donna Harris’s home is besieged by stereo construction. In April, a hydraulic jackhammer mounted on tank-like treads bashed away at bedrock for days. It excavated so close to Don and Donna’s property line that the wooden fence separating the two properties now looks like it’s hanging in the air. The excavation destroyed the roots of two large and healthy trees on the west side of their north-facing property.
Tree roots are cut; trees are destabilized
“I know it’s a weed tree,” says Donna, referring to the Manitoba maple whose abundant foliage once shaded a deck at the back of their home. The maple was on the west side of the property, growing in exactly the right place to provide
maximum shade. They loved sitting under its leafy canopy during Ottawa’s hot, humid summers. Its loss changes the entire experience of their backyard. And it will have an impact on air conditioning bills each summer.
“It was home to squirrel nests, so I guess we won’t have squirrels in our yard anymore,” says Donna.
With half the critical root zone gone due to the excavation next door, the maple – and a tall cedar tree near the front of their property – were both destabilized to such an extent that a forestry official from the city told the homeowners to destroy the trees and seek damages from the contractor and property owner through Small Claims Court. That’s what they’ll do.
During the first week of May, Don and Donna paid $3,500 to have the Manitoba Maple removed from their backyard. “Our lawyer told us that we are totally liable now if it falls,” said Don. Even if they were to sell their property and the tree fell on the house owned by new people, their liability remains. They will pay to have the cedar tree destroyed, too, in due course.
Adjacent to their driveway, a towering ginkgo tree that they have cared for since they bought the house in 2005 is under a death watch, too. It's a tree they have loved and cared for. “We’ve spent a lot of money on the ginkgo,” says Don. They’ve had a cable installed in the highest branches to ensure it won’t be toppled in high winds. It is bolted at the V-junction near the lower end of its massive trunk. Don says the species with beautiful fan-shaped leaves is resistant to disease, is “ruthlessly tough,” and has been a source of pride since it’s one of the tallest and oldest ginkgoes in the city.
“The city has to be held to account with the ginkgo” says Don. It’s a 40-foot tree that is only six or seven feet away from the excavation that’s slated to begin – after the house next to them at 20 Gould Street goes to landfill – in August. “I want the city to ensure that a proper assessment is done to assure the critical root zone of this tree is not damaged,” he said.
If he gets no response as a squeaky wheel, Don seems ready to become a hollering homeowner. But will his—or anyone else’s--demands for tree protection get him anywhere?
Donna is feeling jaded. Aware of amendments that may be coming to the Urban Tree Conservation By-law, which has no mandate to protect trees from severe root damage emanating from adjacent properties, she says, “Will they finish with the amendments after all the trees are taken down by infill?”
Stunning changes in an R1 zone
In April 2018, when the owner of 20 Gould Street applied to Committee of Adjustment for “minor variances” to allow building of two houses on the 50 ft. wide property zoned for single detached dwellings, 27 neighbours on Gould, Western, Spencer and Carleton opposed the application. You can read their submission here.
Committee of Adjustment denied the variances.
“I had to start my own residents’ association,” said Don. The Wellington Village Community Association did not offer him or his neighbours the support they needed at Committee of Adjustment or later in 2018, when the developer appealed the C of A ruling to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).
The LPAT hearing in August did not go the way Gould St. residents would have liked. “We had quite a few of our neighbours on side,” said Donna. “But we didn’t have a bigwig with a binder.” They didn’t have their official community association on side, nor did the residents have money to hire a planner or lawyer to represent them at the LPAT hearing.
The developer’s consultant planner, Michael Wright, convinced the tribunal to rule in favour of the original application. The City of Ottawa issued a letter supporting the developer’s streetscape plan, which was used in the tribunal hearing. Don’s appeals to councillor Jeff Leiper for support were declined.
What does this mean for the future? Could it be that the City of Ottawa has a desire to support intensification in R1 neighbourhoods, no matter the impact on trees and greenspace, traffic and parking, look and feel of the streetscape?
In R1 neighbourhoods where houses are built on a mix of lot sizes, will rulings like this from LPAT (soon to revert to the old OMB model, thanks to Premier Doug Ford), give developers the right to do as they wish, namely put two buildings on lots zoned for single dwellings? This would increase tax revenues for the city, avoid the inconvenience of doing a full planning and consultation exercise, and keep developers happy.
Stay tuned. Intense density in the form of two tall skinny houses could be coming to an R1 lot near you.