Cutting down distinctive trees in Sandy Hill brings issues to the fore

Marilyn Whitaker

This healthy silver maple near Somerset and Marlborough could be threatened if construction proceeds with insufficient protections.
Photo Marilyn Whitaker

In July, a tree near Somerset and Marlborough, which was large enough to be considered a distinctive tree, was cut down with almost no public notice. It was in the yard of a property which had been undergoing lengthy renovations and had lost a limb when tornados hit the Ottawa area last year. Neighbours were surprised and concerned about the tree’s removal and the maintenance of the yard and expressed these concerns to Councillor Mathieu Fleury, and officials from several City departments at an on-site gathering on August 8. The next day, the property owner submitted a building permit request for a new infill project. This project could affect a much larger distinctive tree, an enormous, healthy and well-cared for silver maple on an adjacent property. An arborist reports that this silver maple is approximately 80-90 years old, which is rare in the city, and that “given its ecological and aesthetic value, the tree should be considered a high priority for conservation.”  At a meeting on October 4 at City Hall, it appears that the project will proceed.

Large, mature trees can still be found lining some Sandy Hill streets and dotting parks and yards. The neighbourhood has lost many substantial trees due to Dutch elm disease, more intense development and infill, street widenings, and the recent destruction from the emerald ash borer.

Currently, there are several City programs related to tree planting, conservation and removal. Under the Trees in Trust program, property owners can request the City plant a tree on the street frontage and then assist with the new tree’s care. With the Tree Removal Program, property owners or tenants can apply to have dead, dying or dangerous trees located in adjacent public streets and alley rights-of-way inspected by a City arborist, before possible removal. The Infill Tree Conservation Program is part of the building permit application for new houses, duplex and triplex units and requires information on the trees on the property and adjacent properties. Measures to protect trees during construction are to be taken. A $700 refundable tree planning deposit is charged to encourage replacement of trees lost to development. Large trees, with trunks that are 50 cm or more in diameter, are deemed distinctive trees and their injury or destruction is prohibited on most residential properties unless a distinctive tree permit, has been issued.

Concerns about a dwindling urban forest across Ottawa, lead to the development of Putting Down Roots for the Future, the Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) approved by City Council in June 2017. The product of work by City staff, consultants and public consultations involving community organizations such as Action Sandy Hill, and other interested groups, it is intended to provide guidance to achieve urban forest sustainability in Ottawa in the coming decades (see Ottawa’s urban forest includes trees on both public and private property: along city streets; in parks, open spaces and natural areas; and in the yards and landscaped areas of residences, offices, institutions, and businesses. The UFMP talks about the urban forest’s benefits such as better air quality, heat reduction, UV protection as well as other benefits, such as improved mental and physical health and enhanced property values.

A tree bylaw review is one of the first items for work under the UFMP’s 26 recommendations. Public consultations just concluded. Bylaws on urban tree conservation and natural areas protection are being examined, along with the need for a Heritage Tree Bylaw program or registry in Ottawa. City-wide tree compensation guidelines, incentives for tree conservation and tree planting are being considered as part of this work.

People are wondering if this on-going work will result in existing or new measures being implemented to protect distinctive trees and maintain the urban forest. Those interested in activities to green Sandy Hill can take part in the Sandy Hill Tree Group (, care for existing trees,  press for their protection, and/or plant new trees.


What is a distinctive tree?

In Ottawa, a tree with a trunk diameter of 50 cm or more, when measured at 1.2 m above ground level, is considered to be a distinctive tree.

A tree’s Critical Root Zone is established as 10 cm from the trunk for every centimeter of trunk diameter.

No person shall injure or cause the injury or destruction of a distinctive tree, unless a distinctive tree permit has been issued by the General Manager to permit the injury or destruction. The permit is to be posted so that it is clearly visible to the public for a period of at least seven days before and after any action in accordance with the distinctive tree permit.