Some residents living along the heritage trail are upset after the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake allowed more than two dozen healthy trees to be chopped down along the historic walking path.
While taking their daily walks along the Upper Canada Heritage Trail, neighbours discovered the healthy trees were being removed on the section of the trail between Charlotte Street and East and West Line.
When they started asking questions, they learned that Niagara-on-the-Lake town staff had hired a company to cut down the trees to prepare to remove one dead tree, which is hanging into a resident's yard.
Julie Clark, who has lived in a house that backs onto the trail for 30 years, was walking her dog Gemma last Wednesday when she saw the crews working.
At first she thought the trees were being cut down as part of the planned redevelopment of the trail by the town's heritage trail committee.
"They were cutting down all kinds of trees on both sides. And I asked them, because I thought it was to do with the widening of the trail — but it wasn't," Clark said in an interview along the trail Monday.
She said she was told the trail was being widened so a crane could be brought in to remove a hazardous tree.
"They said they just wanted to cut down a dead tree that's gonna possibly fall on somebody's house."
But cutting down healthy trees to remove a single dead one has Clark and fellow neighbours now mourning a loss of canopy on the trail, which they said has already been impacted by the removal of trees on the Rand Estate.
Tracey O'Brien-Dim, who has lived along the trail for seven years (and bought the house from her parents, who had it since 1987) said she was shocked to see the trees cut.
"It's devastating. We walk the trail every day. This is our space. It's nature," she said.
She said she thinks there must be a better way to remove one dead tree and questions if the town did its due dilligence in exploring removal options that wouldn't impact the natural area.
"I don't know why they need to take down healthy trees to get to a dead tree. There has to be other ways," O'Brien-Dim said.
"And if they're so against everybody else cutting trees down, I don't know why they'd go ahead and cut good healthy trees down to get one dead tree out."
The town's director of operations, Kevin Turcotte, said the decision to cut the trees was made "as per the town’s regular maintenance procedures" and staff worked hard to "ensure the removal of as few trees as possible."
"Staff asked the tree service to provide options and due to the height of the tree, a crane is what was suggested. Despite this suggestion, staff is investigating alternative options to the crane. However, due to the height of the tree, our options are extremely limited," he said, in response to questions from The Lake Report.
The town is also planning to redevelop the trail and has a committee of council dedicated to the project, but the chair of the committee, Rick Meloen, said his group wasn't made aware of the cutting either.
Turcotte said the committee was not notified because it was done "as part of the town’s regular maintenance program. Therefore consultation with the committee was not required."
Clark said when she called Coun. Allan Bisback, he did not know about the planned changes either.
"Nobody knew anything about it. And the mayor was even up the trail here on the weekend, checking it out," Clark said.
Meloen, who is tasked with overseeing the committee for the restoration of the trail, said the committee was not consulted or made aware of the town's decision to remove the trees, and had nothing to do with it.
"This is unrelated to the heritage trail committee," Meloen said during a phone interview Tuesday.
"I've also been subtly getting the message that there's some kind of behind-the-scenes plan going on here, which is totally false," he said, adding he thinks the tree removal is a separate issue from the trail development project.
"If there was no heritage trail committee, no plans for the trail, this tree would still have to come down."
He said he doesn't feel the town undermined the committee's authority, "because quite frankly we don't have a lot of authority," but he would have liked to have known beforehand.
"It would have been nice to be kept in the loop."
He said he's not in favour of seeing healthy trees cut down on the trail, but that people need to be "pragmatic" about the situation.
"I'm standing by the tree now. It is clearly dead. There's no mistaking that. And it's clearly leaning over private property. So what are town staff supposed to do? What are the options here?" he said.
"Some people told me that 'Oh, well, they can climb.' But an arborist will not climb a dead tree. No sane, trained tree trimmer or tree removal person will climb a dead tree. It is just unsafe," he said, adding that he's not an expert on tree removal, but has experience.
"It looks to me like a crane is really probably the only option."
He said the committee will be requesting that the town keep members aware of plans for the trail going forward.
"We're working with the town on this and, as I said, it's distressing to see the trees that are needlessly removed, but here's a situation where the town has to do due diligence. In a way the town staff are stuck between a rock and a hard place," Meloen said.
"But I just want to reiterate the trail committee had nothing to do with this. This is not part of some nefarious plan. As people may suspect or think. I'm offended by that."
Part of what residents like Clark and O'Brien-Dim are also angry about is that the town hasn't cleaned up any of the trees that were cut down, leaving wood chips and chopped stumps littered along the trail.
However, Turcotte said all the remaining trees will be removed "within the next couple of weeks."
Neighbours also strongly opposed to heritage trail development
Clark, O'Brien-Dim and other neighbours aren't supportive of any redevelopment of the path and would like to see it left as a natural trail. They're not interested in gravel paths, as has been done between John Street and Paffard. They don't want it widened to three metres.
And with farms bordering the trail they said they have concerns about safety as well as enjoyment of whatever natural trail remains for residents. They also worry about bike tours starting to use the path if it is opened up.
"This is the only natural foot trail left in Niagara-on-the-Lake that's not paved, overcome by bikes and tourists," O'Brien-Dim said.
Meloen said the committee wants to listen to neighbouring residents and so far has no final plans for that section of the trail.
"I personally had a meeting with with a couple residents. We've discussed this and and I'm hoping we can come come to some sort of agreement as to as to how to approach this," he said.
"There is no plan as yet. The town has not drawn up any plans for this stretch yet. So everything is up for discussion right now," he said.
"I've known for decades that the citizens in this town are very concerned about the trees," he added. "And I very much appreciate that and I like that. Because if people in this town didn't have a passion for the trees (and) the beautiful tree canopy that we have, we would be all the much poorer for that. What kind of town would we be? So I do appreciate the concerns that people have, I really do, but you have to be pragmatic about this as well."
Clark said she just wants the path remain the way it is. "It's a nature trail and it should be staying a nature trail."
"I have pictures when it was just a little one-person trail, wide enough for one person to go out, with lots of trees and beautiful canopy. There used to be deer on here all the time" plus coyotes, rabbits and tons of birds, she said.
"And there was a big owl that lived here. I haven't seen it in the last year at all," Clark said.
"We've lived here for 30 years and you know it's changed dramatically for us."
O'Brien-Dim said Lord Mayor Betty Disero walked the trail Tuesday with the group and told town staff "not to go any further until they look into other ways of removing the dead tree."