Oak tree crux of Oak Bay condo debate

A towering Garry oak tree next door to a proposed 14-unit condo development on a single-family lot is at the root of a mighty big controversy in Oak Bay.

The high-end project would affect the stability of the more than hundred-year-old tree so much that it would become a “foreseeable hazard” under the tree-protection bylaw, and it would have to come down, says a report to the municipality by its arborist, Chris Paul.

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That has deeply disturbed some residents of the York House co-op next door, on whose property the oak sits as well as hundreds of others who have signed a petition of protest. They say the development is too large, too tall, has too much underground parking damaging the tree’s root zone, and would reduce the shade, light and tree canopy on the municipality’s main streetscape.

The development company says it would replace the oak with a new large tree, compensate the co-op and plant more trees on its own property, as well as giving Oak Bay money for more tree-planting.

“Tall, regal and majestic, this landmark Garry oak is symbolic of Oak Bay itself,” reads a save-the-tree flyer available in front of the oak. “We are rapidly losing the scenic beauty and ecological benefits of our tree canopy, particularly our mature Garry oaks, even though they are bylaw-protected.”

Since January 2013, 85 Oak Bay trees have been removed due to development, said chief administrative officer Helen Koning, adding that the municipality does not track the species that are removed or replaced. To compensate for the 85, “118 have or will be replanted as per provisions in our bylaw.”

The proposal for the Quest building is the second go-round for 2326 Oak Bay Ave. by Large and Co. Developers, which approached council three years ago with the project and was advised to wait until the revision of the official community plan, said Kim Colpman, director of property development for the company. The OCP now designates the property for multi-family development, she said.

The tree is near the edge of the neighbouring York property at 2340 Oak Bay Ave., close enough that one of its large branches and its offshoots would hit the proposed structure, leading to decay and danger.

The save-the-tree campaign that advocates deep-sixing the development includes glossy brochures available tree-side and a large sign seeking public support. Its pamphlet blares: “Oak Bay’s unique character is at risk! Say no the developer’s proposal for 2326 Oak Bay Ave.”

As of Aug. 31, the petition has 472 signatures — 223 written responses or from door-to-door canvassing, and 249 added to the website, said group spokesman JohnTiffany.

A June 19 assessment of the tree by Paul stated that if the major branch and its lateral branches were removed, it would leave “a very large wound” that would lead to decay in the trunk, while underground parking would require excavation to the east edge of the 2326 lot, within three metres of the trunk on the neighbouring property.

“We are not against modest and responsible development that respects existing Oak Bay neighbourhoods,” said save-the-tree spokesman John Tiffany, who lives about a block away and notes that only three of the group’s 13 members live in the affected co-op. He said the designation for multi-family housing in the OCP is meant for existing multi-unit residential properties. And he finds it odd that Oak Bay would not keep track of Garry oaks in terms of demolitions.

The proposal was due to go before Oak Bay council early in the fall, but has recently been bumped to November, at the request of the applicants. The proposal involves a rezoning and development permit, but does not require an OCP amendment, Koning said in an email.

“If council decides to move the application forward, it will include a public hearing,” she added.

Colpman said council will have to make “the value decision” between the worth of the trees and housing for people who might already live nearby but want to downsize and stay in the neighbourhood. This lot, with a small house “orphaned” between two multi-storey buildings on an arterial road, is a good place for needed residences, she said. The developer told the muncipal advisory design commission that its community engagement, including two open houses, “ indicates that 144 of the 160 homes contacted were in support,” The condo units are planned for 800 to 1,100 square feet in size, and she noted that the Oak Bay advisory design panel described the proposal as “exemplary.”

“This tree is not even on our property, but we recognize the value of the tree,” Colpman said. “We’ve been around and around it different ways. It cannot be preserved.”

According to Oak Bay bylaws, if the development were approved, Large would be required to plant two trees to replace the oak.

Instead, it is willing to give the York strata council $25,000 for the loss of the tree, and provide for the removal and a replacement tree 20 feet high at a cost of $10,000, plus another $10,000 to Oak Bay for tree planting, along with planting 11 new trees at the Quest, which because of underground parking would have plenty of greenery on site, she said.

However, no amount of money can replace what this tree stands for, York resident Wendy Wiley said in an email to the Times Colonist.

“It shades the property, cleans the air, moderates the climate, controls groundwater and esthetically enhances the facade. … Is it appropriate for Oak Bay council to authorize the proposal as it stands, which blasts out half the essential root zone to create underground parking?”

Tiffany would prefer fewer townhouses with surface parking; Colpman favours underground parking and more units.

The York House board of directors said in a letter: “We feel it is prudent to remain uninvolved as a group entity while this proposal is still in the ‘sales pitch’ stage. … We feel the fairest course for us to follow is to wait for Oak Bay council to go through its public process in evaluating this development and make its decision on behalf of the community before we engage in any direct discussion with Large and Co. on behalf of building.”

The Quest is technically four storeys, but its rooftop garden, sauna and fitness centre, along with its roof line and nine-foot ceilings, add to the height. A penthouse unit was dropped to allow more light for a neighbour to the north, and setbacks increased.

York House resident Nancy Barnes told the Times Colonist that the community has been excluded from “meaningful participation” in the municipal review process for major developments because members of the public cannot speak, for instance, at meetings of the advisory design panel or advisory planning commission, even when incorrect information comes up or major concerns are left unaddressed.

“This is why we have to resort to issuing pamphlets and postering the neighbourhood,” she said in an email.

Tiffany said the proposal violates many objectives of the OCP, citing a landscape guideline that states site layout and building locations should “retain and conserve as much natural vegetation, rock outcrops, existing hydrology and unique site features as possible, including Garry oaks, other large trees and significant vegetation. Respect the existing topography, minimizing the need for cut and fill, major blasting, or tall retaining walls.”

He also cites another guideline: “Design the landscape to retain, and if possible to increase, the tree canopy on the site,” and questions how blasting on the entire lot to build an underground parkade complies.

“We think that it is a watershed moment,” Tiffany wrote. “If this proposal is approved, it will tell developers that they need not concern themselves with Oak Bay’s building bylaws or OCP guidelines protecting neighbours, neighbourhoods, environment and Oak Bay character.”

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