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Only 2 trees survive Stage 2 LRT power play

Photo shows a Scotch pine and a maple that remain after March 15 clear-cutting near Dominion transit station.

March 15, 2022

Two weeks of lobbying by Westboro residents living closest to Dominion Transit station elicited NO when they requested a moratorium on newly revealed plan to demolish a swath of greenspace containing 25 large trees.

Residents' secondary request--for public consultation--was likewise stonewalled by KEV, a consortium contracted by the City of Ottawa to build the mammoth Stage 2 LRT project along the NCC roadway that follows the Ottawa River west of downtown.

By noon on March 15 (the ill-fated Ides of March) only 2 trees remained standing. Why were they spared?

Concerned residents on site from early morning had spoken to the crew whose job was to level the 5-metre wide X 20 metre long greenspace. They were hirelings, following orders from higher up. The white-shirted higher-ups had made it clear in previous phone and email discussions with Councillor Jeff Leiper, with people from the neighbourhood, and with volunteers from enviro groups alarmed about the plan, that the trees had be destroyed NOW so that a multi-use pathway could be build NOW.

Around 10:30 a.m. when a CBC camera operator and reporter arrived on the scene, machinery fell silent, and men began talking into their vest-mounted walkie-talkies to someone who had decided that a Scotch pine and a maple tree were worthy of redemption. A representative of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital on site from early that morning had spied 7 large Scotch pines and asked whether they might be spared from clear-cutting.

When all was said and done, only two of 25 trees remained standing. Is this a victory? Or is a dry soup bone unlikely to offer any true sustenance to a city being robbed of public greenspace and private trees--here, there and everywhere?

Residents were blindsided

What's good for the city in terms of ceding project oversight to a private company is clearly not working for people who pay taxes in Ottawa. Residents feel blindsided on two fronts.

Bob Thomson has lived in the Barclay condo building on Dominion Ave. for 23 years.

He and his neighbours attended the city's public hearings on LRT Stage 2 back in 2017. They saw plans that they could live with, and sucked up the reality that they'd be living in a construction zone for 2 years or longer.

None of them expected to be blindsided by a new plan that would not only remove more trees than set out in the plan but will also change the path of the LRT tracks at Dominion station so that tons of limestone will need to be turned into rubble and removed from the site. That option, which the city previously told residents it had rejected because of much higher costs, is now what the contractor for the project is planning to implement.

And no city politician or administrator can say "boo" to the higher-cost plan because the contractor operates, it seems, in a unique universe, answerable not to them or to people who are footing the bill for LRT Stage 2.

Photo: Bob Thomson with conifers in background before clear-cutting began.

In a letter to KEV on the morning of March 14, Thomson wrote:

Plans are underway to cut away half of an NCC owned woodlot at the foot of Dominion Avenue which is well used by hundreds of residents in the five adjacent apartment, retirement home and condominium buildings.

The woodlot just east of the Rochester Field will be part of the SJAM Linear Park and eventually perhaps also the Kichi Sibi Winter Trail. A January 2018 City planning document specifically notes that "the land has been used by the community informally as a park and as a short-cut to the Dominion Transitway station for many years". In agreeing to cede development on the Rochester Field along Richmond Road, the City noted that the eastern part of the field should remain as greenspace and the NCC proposed that over 80 per cent of Rochester Field remain as publicly accessible open space that incorporates park facilities and amenities.

By significantly reducing the width of the greenspace in this woodlot at the end of Dominion Avenue, after already cutting into it for the LRT and a multi-use path, which will be part of the SJAM Linear Park, the proposed larger area staked out by KEV, without community consultation, to cut a further 20-30 meters into the woodlot, removes the existing path within the woodlot, goes against the above approvals by the City and the NCC for the maintenance of parkland and greenspace in this area. The already existing cut back was considered adequate for both the LRT and the path, and was included in the LRT design process and clearly limited following community representations at a public consultation at the Churchill Seniors Centre on April 20, 2017. In addition, these new cuts would destroy trees that I understand are protected from cutting between March 10th and September 1st for nesting by the Migratory Bird Convention Act.

Thomson knew nothing about plans to destroy the wooded area until a neighbour showed him a notice from KEV in early March. People living in the 90 units in his building received no notices, even though the building is a stone's throw from the area to be cut, even though condo residents have worn a well-used path through the very woodlot that was to be demolished, and even though community-minded gardeners have built and planted 2 "backyard" veggie gardens in recent years.

The woodlot's trees and bushes provide both a sound buffer and shade to people, and they offer a home to squirrels and birds.

Residents like Thomson were not aware that KEV operates in a world unto itself. Even though the river parkway lands are owned by the NCC, it has turned those lands over to the City of Ottawa for LRT Phase 2, which has, in turn, signed a contract with KEV that is dubbed "design-build." This means that the community consultations done back in 2017 can be ignored if KEV and KEV alone, decides to modify its design (and execution) of the LRT project.

A community engagement staffer explained this to a member of the Greenspace Alliance, by email, as follows:

The Stage 2 LRT is an infrastructure project, which is not the same as a residential developer. The requirements of this Design-Build-Finance mega project are outlined in the Project Agreement, and by municipal regulations and permits. The wildlife protection windows for tree removal are indeed being respected, and follow the required protocol. Timing windows were identified in the Project’s Environmental Assessment completed by the City. This takes into account the City’s Wildlife Protocol and Environment Canada requirements. A biologist survey is also completed to ensure no nesting activity is disturbed.

For the birds?

On the morning of the tree-cutting, before the first engine asserted itself on silence, the pathway behind Barclay condo building was filled with the trills and tweets of small birds. The day before, Bob Thomson tole me he photographed 20 songbirds in a single tree--one of the trees that no longer stands.

Yes, a biologist was on site during the tree demolition. He stood at the northern periphery of the cutting zone and seemed nervous, but he wasn't saving any birds from any human-created mayhem--at least not that we could see. But, hey, there was a box that needed to be ticked, and his presence ticked that box.

Activists who have protested clear-cutting of trees at the South March Highlands are fully aware that the city's Wildlife Protocol is aspirational in the sense that city officials refused to use it to halt spring clear-cutting when a permit to allow that cutting existed. These days the mega-project that is Stage 2 LRT plays by a whole set of rules that exist outside the dynamics of accountability to citizens who actually pay for such huge infrastructure projects.--and whose access to greenspace is being eroded so that Stage 2 of a scandalous transit project can procced.

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