Brooke-Alvinston Mayor Don McGugan couldn’t believe his eyes.
On the way to a recent Lambton County committee meeting, he came across county work crews chopping down six trees at the corner of Petrolia and Forest Line. It wasn’t even nine in the morning.
McGugan, who says he’s more of a “tree-lover than a tree cutter” was surprised by the pace the county is cutting trees.
But for some time now, County Solicitor David Cribbs says the county has had a policy of cutting trees in county road allowances. “We spend roughly $60,000 a year to remove trees from municipal rights of way,” he says.
It’s all about liability in case of an accident. Cribbs says if the county is named in a lawsuit after a vehicle crashes into a tree, even if it is found only one per cent responsible it foots the entire bill and has to collect payment from the other parties deemed responsible.
That’s just one of the court cases which have pushed insurance rates for municipal governments to new highs. The Canadian Underwriters say in 2011, municipalities paid $155 million for insurance and $85 million for liability premiums. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario say municipal insurance premiums rose 22 per cent between 2007 and 2011.
So municipalities and counties are doing everything they can do reduce their risk.
“The county tries to remove immovable objects from road right of way,” says Cribbs.
“If people run into a tree, they don’t move,” says Jim Kutyba, general manager of infrastructure and development. “They’re a liability.”
It hasn’t been a popular move. Last fall, county work crews cut down a large tree on Oil Heritage Road between Wyoming and Petrolia prompting letters of concern to The Independent.
“This old tree was no closer and actually further from the road then many other trees along that road,” wrote Cindy Simmons. “There are so many dead trees out there that should be cut down, it just seems ridiculous that this tree was selected to be cut down.
“I do not care who cut it down but the person who gave the order to do that didn’t think very long and hard about their decision,” wrote Donanne Avery adding the county should be spending more time taking down dead trees instead of healthy trees.
Don McGugan agrees. He says there is a lifespan for trees and once it is mature – and begins to rot and break down – it should be “harvested” just like any other crop.
“Thos (six trees on Petrolia Line) should be left – if they aren’t dead and not mature should not be cut down,” he told The Independent.
He thinks the idea of reducing the risk of liability isn’t a good enough reason to cut healthy trees. “’What about the hydro poles along the road we don’t cut them down,” he says. “And risk – when I get in my car I run a risk.
“We’ve gone too far.”
And while the county has been removing the trees because of a potential liability Cribbs says in his three years at the county there has not been one legal action against the county where a car hit a tree at the side of the road. Most of the legal actions involving cars are related to winter maintenance.
St. Clair Township Mayor Steve Arnold says the county may actually be making winter maintancence worse by cutting trees along the roadway. “We still have to have windbreaks put up someplace,” he says. “What are we doing on our own roads if were just cutting them and not replacing them?”
But road officials say it is county policy not to plant trees along the roadways because of the possibility of liability in a car crash. Arnold says the county should be encouraging landowners to plant more trees as natural barrier then. “We need to have a plan going forward,” he says.
The county does plant trees in designated areas, but McGugan says it is not enough. “We need a tree policy – they play a big role.”