November 21, 2017
The Tree Story

A very long story about a very big tree (one of the biggest in our neighbourhood).


One of the fixtures of our property has been a large Norway maple tree in our backyard.  While we don't have an exact age for the tree, the professionals have estimated it to be about 100 years old.  Brendan's parents used to have it trimmed every 5 years or so and once we took over the property we've continued to do so with the same arborists.  As the tree aged we began having our arborists inspect and trim bi-annually instead.  Back in 2015 we had a large section removed due to a crack that the experts felt could become a threat.  We've literally spent thousands of dollars on this tree, and we have done our best to ensure the tree is healthy and safe.


Having a tree of this size right in the corner of four properties leads to its share of conflicts.  Over the years, we got used to the neighbours behaving as if the tree belonged to them. Each of the neighbours at various times hired arborists to trim the tree - several times doing quite major work, and generally for cosmetic reasons (mostly not wishing to have the shade for their garden or fall cleanup work). They did not seek our permission; one neighbour only informed us about a major limb removal because they were hoping we would let them chop the whole tree down. We were quite annoyed about that particular removal as it left our backyard completely unusable after about 3pm in the afternoon for several years due to the broiling sun, especially since that neighbour almost immediately listed their property for sale. 


Anyway, until a big court case in Toronto about a similarly placed tree we didn't have any way to stop the neighbours from doing whatever they wanted to the tree provided they used a professional and didn't cause the tree to become unsafe. After that court case though it turned out that legally neighbours for trees on corner lots can be considered to have ownership rights over the tree. We were told that meant we could tell the neighbours to cease and desist if they wanted to trim tree branches overhanging their property, but it also gave our neighbours the legal right to prevent us from conducting work on the tree or taking it down without their permission.


In addition to providing a great deal of shade, the tree itself was a major wildlife shelter. All manner of bats, squirrels, birds and even the odd raccoon had been known to hang out on the tree. One summer we counted at least 13 squirrel nests. After the big limb came down in 2015 the amount of wildlife in our yard decreased significantly, and the mosquito population climbed.


The constant chipping at the tree coupled with Hydro needing to trim it to keep the branches away from the power lines which run right through it undoubtedly shortened its lifespan.


This summer one of our neighbours mentioned to us that their arborist had caused them to be concerned about a couple of the branches overhanging their property.  They gave us a long spiel about how they loved mature trees and if there was anything that could be done to save the limbs they would prefer that over having them removed.  Since it was time to have the tree checked anyway we told them we would happily get our normal tree people to check it out.  So our tree people came and gave it a look from the ground and said that they didn't see anything to be concerned about but that they would do a more thorough investigation while they were up in the tree trimming it.  After conducting said thorough investigation they told us both orally and in writing that those particular branches, while showing some signs of growth on the surface, were completely fine and nothing to worry about.  They suggested checking it again in a couple of years.  We passed this along to the concerned neighbour who responded "great" with a smile and appeared to be pleased with this finding.  At this point we reiterated to them that if they wanted they would be more than welcome to seek a second opinion. Up until that point our relationship with this neighbour of quite a few years has consisted mainly of them asking us for favours and we counted them among the many awesome neighbours we have been blessed by.


Three months later we received a registered letter from the city bylaw office stating that we had been "negligent in our duty to remove a diseased limb" from "our" tree and that we had nine days to remove what turned out to be approximately one third of the tree or bylaw would do so at our expense.


Needless to say we were completely blindsided and felt like we had entered an alternate reality. When I called bylaw to find out what was going on and why they hadn't even bothered to talk to us first, the bylaw officer was extremely rude and confrontational. He told me that the neighbours stated this had been an ongoing issue stretching back several years, that it was clear to him and his third party arborist just by looking at it from below that the tree limb was dangerous, that bylaw didn't have time to communicate in any other way aside from registered letters (which we felt was extremely antagonistic) and that the city of Ottawa considered that the tree belonged to us. I was curious to know under what basis he had made that determination since we had been told otherwise; apparently there is a map that they use (from many years ago) whereby if your tree is on one property in that map, it belongs to you as per the city, even if legally the rest of it has grown so much that it's over other property lines. Which left us in a bit of a tricky spot, since we now had to comply with a bylaw order, but also needed to seek permission to do so from three other properties in order to ensure we weren't about to get into a hornet's nest of legal trouble. His tune gradually changed as I stayed calm and explained how we'd gotten a written report from a certified arborist stating there was no imminent danger to our neighbours and was concerned that this was in direct conflict with his assessment. In the end, with a little help from our municipal councillor's office, he agreed to get the two arborists to have a meeting and inspect the tree together.  So the arborists met and climbed up in the tree together and poked and prodded.  They then concluded that our arborist had been correct and that there was no imminent risk.  However as the city had now been involved no one was willing to sign off on liability so the limbs would still need to be removed.  Sigh. On the bright side, we were granted an indefinite timeline to figure out how to do so safely. Around here getting someone to remove a large limb in only nine days is a bit of a stretch even if you ignore the need for seeking permission and coordinating among four different parties but for a tree of this size and a job of this complexity it was absolutely absurd, so it was a great relief to have that restriction removed. It turned out that the only company in the region with the skills and equipment has a normal booking lead time of 4 weeks(!)  


Since we found it hard to believe that any of our neighbours would have complained without talking to us, Brendan went around to talk to the neighbours that had previously expressed concern. Imagine how we felt to discover they had not only called bylaw, but had attempted to get the other two neighbours to sign a letter stating our negligence before going to the city to complain.


At this point we wanted to know if the removal of these (rather large) limbs would then mean that the entire tree should be taken down.  Our original arborist gave us a quote of nearly $8000, told us that he was "beside himself" to have his staff issue a written guarantee and explained he wouldn't personally have a single tree within striking distance of his house. In fact, he wouldn't plant trees anywhere where they could conceivably cause damage to houses or cars (apparently he is not a fan of the urban canopy). He very condescendingly explained that our personal risk threshold was obviously higher as we didn't mind having a tree so close to our house, and refused to give any kind of assessment of whether or not removing the large limb would threaten our house. We decided that perhaps it was time to talk to a broader selection of arborists.  So we called them all (well all the good ones anyway).  After a parade of arborists came and assessed the tree with the knowledge that two large limbs representing roughly a third of the tree would have to be removed we finally reached a consensus that this was the time to take the tree down. While we knew this day was coming, after our health checkup in the summer we had not budgeted for the work to be done this year.  However, such is life.


As it turns out, work on large trees is expensive.  When the tree is growing up on either side of power lines it gets more expensive.  When it is growing right over immobile structures it gets even more expensive.  In the course getting a pile of quotes we discovered a few things.  First of all most companies are not equipped to take down a tree of this size except by chopping it into a million pieces.  This is hard work and somewhat risky as the small pieces are being lowered down to the ground by people up in the tree with ropes.  Even a small section of a tree this size is extremely heavy so the risk to both the people doing the work and the property is not insignificant.  One arborist recommended that we speak to a company out in Arnprior who had a massive crane they could use to reach right over the houses and support the tree sections as they are removed.  The arborist explained that this would be much safer and in fact also cheaper as despite the crazy cost of the equipment the work would be done much faster and with much less potential liability.  With some more research it became apparent that this was indeed the way to go and we contracted them to do the work.


In order to complete the work, all of the companies agreed they would need the neighbours to grant access to their property due to the positioning of the hydro wires. We duly notified our neighbours, and the ones who had originally called bylaw (and whose access we definitely needed) inexplicably decided to not grant access to their property unless we signed off personally on all sorts of guarantees. We were a little unclear on what the point was, since we were under a bylaw order based on their complaint and push come to shove the city would have just compelled them to allow the work. We were obviously not about to sign anything, especially since they had suddenly morphed into neighbours-from-hell. Luckily they went away for a couple of weeks and gave their other neighbour authorization to deal with us. The other neighbour was much more reasonable and accepted an assurance that the company doing the removal was properly licensed etc.


Then there was the wrinkle of the distinctive tree permit.  In the past several years the city decided that too many mature trees were being cut down for no good reason and in order to combat this they implemented a new permit requirement for trees larger than a certain size. Of course our tree would require a permit to be taken down and of course no they could not waive the requirement despite the fact that they were in essence forcing us to take down the tree. The permit process itself was pretty straightforward; they are virtually never denied and the actual cost is completely trivial compared to getting the tree taken down. We're not convinced after our experience that the city actually has any interest in preserving mature trees.


By now this is all just getting silly but then we had a couple of major wind storms which took down a whole pile of trees across the city. One of the storms apparently had wind speeds of up to 160 km/h. The resulting damage absolutely swamped the city's forestry department who are not only responsible for cleaning up storm mess on city property but also for issuing said permits. Our tree was (of course) fine.  It took more than a month for the city to finally issue the magic permit instead of the usual week. With only a few days left in the expected tree trimming season after the required seven day posting we were able to shoehorn our job in and have the work done.


While madly trying to research options, deal with neighbours, bylaw, arborists and the city we also wanted to do something to preserve the memory of the tree.  We had always talked about saving part of the tree and turning it into something but had never gotten much beyond that basic thought as the time for such things had always been at least a couple of years off.  With the end of the tree forced upon us we had to also scramble to find options for saving wood from the tree in a usable manner.  We called around to various sawyers and found one who was willing to make the trek into the city to do the job.  The original idea was that he would bring his portable sawmill to our house and saw a few large logs into boards on site.  With the city's permit nonsense and the arrival of snow this was no longer an option so instead he brought a large trailer to haul away logs to be sawed up.  The idea was then that the boards would travel even further to a kiln to be dried and then returned as rough but usable lumber.


With everything arranged and no real margin for delays or error the big day arrived.  It was both extremely impressive and moderately emotional.  Seeing the tree go was certainly sad. It's been there longer than any of us and a part of Brendan's life since he was two.  On the other hand watching the roughly 1.5 million dollars worth of fancy equipment work throughout the day did help to distract us and anyone else who passed within a several block radius.  The team taking down the tree were obviously extremely experienced and worked very well together.  They all had headsets in their helmets, allowing them to talk to each other throughout the job despite them being hundreds of feet apart.  The crane setup first on the street behind us to remove the limbs on that side and then on our front lawn to handle the rest of the tree.  In each case they would lift the guy with the saw into the tree where he would attach the end of the crane to a section and then cut it off the tree.  The crane would then lift the section up and over the house out to the street to but chopped up further on the ground.  Each section they removed was larger than many decent sized trees. We have a couple of trees in the front that are not that small themselves anymore (big enough to climb!) but quite a few of the sections actually made those trees look small. It was both nerve-wracking and amazing to watch. Some of the "smaller" sections, basically anything less than about 20 inches diameter, they would feed directly into their chipper.  Once they got to the larger sections they would remove straight sections and then loaded them onto the waiting trailer to be taken away by the sawyer.  The sawyer was interested in the bottom 8 feet of the tree but after discussing with the head arborist and learning that it likely weighed over 8000 pounds he laughed and said that wasn't going to happen.  As it was he carted off several thousand pounds of wood.


Once all the branches were off and just the main trunk was left they switched approach.  With the remaining bottom section probably weighing 20000 pounds they explained that the crane could not lift that kind of weight at that extension so they would fell it into our yard (which was thankfully largely empty).  As the guy with the saw finished his very precise cut he looked up with a puzzled expression on his face as the trunk didn't drop.  He then got up, walked over to the neighbours yard and sniped/unhooked/did something with their clothes line which we had all forgotten was attached to the tree and there was a big thump as the bottom promptly fell to the ground leaving an impressive crater where the end hit.  Thankfully his cuts were so precise that everything was well balanced and the tree didn't rip the clothesline right off the neighbours house or fall onto our desk.  Once the trunk was down they cut it into three sections and lifted each over the house into their waiting dump truck where they jumped up and down on them in a humorous but futile attempt to get them to fit before finally sawing off a tiny section right in the truck.


Having seen the tree come down and now having a better understanding for the scale of the job, the crane was clearly the right approach and we are honestly somewhat perplexed as to how the other companies without a crane would have managed to do the job.  As it was it was an all day affair of epic proportions.

On January 10, 2018 at 12:52 pm
Grandpa H said:
A very sad tale; whatever motivated the neighbour is hard to imagine. I guess I thought trees live forever and will find it hard to adjust to your new yardscape...

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