In Our View: Seeing the Forest

Controversy over trees that were topped highlights need to know, follow the rules

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The lesson — as always — is that it’s important to know the rules and to follow them.

That’s what Don Kosterow, owner of Sunrise Bagels in downtown Vancouver, discovered recently. Years ago, Kosterow had bought and planted six European hornbeam trees next to the sidewalk in front of his business — an area that is owned by the city but is the duty of the business owner to maintain. When the hornbeams grew a little too large — they were obscuring the view of the company’s sign — he paid an arborist to lop off the tops.

The problem, as far as the city of Vancouver is concerned, is that the action violated regulations because topping trees is considered an improper way to prune. So city officials ordered Kosterow to replace the trees or face a fine. In the end, the company that topped the trees replaced them at no cost. Crises averted, although it was a costly lesson for the arborist.

The Tale of the Topped Trees could serve as a fable about government regulations or government overreach versus personal freedom. But at its heart, it serves as a reminder of the need to know the rules. Guidelines for the care and maintenance of trees can be found on the city’s website (www.cityofvancouver.us,) and an article by Stephanie Rice in Monday’s edition of The Columbian illuminated details of the reasoning that led to the dispute. “As businesspeople, we all want to do things to attract customers to our site,” Kosterow said. “You think you’re doing it for the right reasons — but then you’re held captive to a set of rules you don’t understand.”

While Kosterow can be forgiven for what seems to be an honest mistake, the company that topped the trees should know better. That is, after all, their business. And yet, some philosophical questions remain. Kosterow had bought, planted and cared for the trees over the years, and a reasonable argument can be made that he should be allowed to prune them as he wishes. A reasonable argument can be made there would be no trees there had Kosterow not planted them in the first place, and that the pruning was a relatively minor detriment.

But, as Jessica Antoine of the city’s urban forestry department told The Columbian in an e-mail: “Street trees are considered a public asset for the benefit of all, through slowing and retaining stormwater, cleaning our air and creating a livable city.” The city has established a goal of increasing its urban tree canopy — defined as the layer of leaves, branches and tree stems when viewed from above — from 18 percent in 2011 to 28 percent by 2030. Charles Ray, the city’s urban forester, said, “It only takes a minute to improperly prune or remove a tree and a lifetime to grow one. That is why it is imperative to preserve and properly care for trees.”

There’s no doubt that we take trees seriously in these parts. In each of the past five years, Vancouver has been awarded a Tree City USA Growth Award from the Arbor Day Foundation, an honor bestowed upon approximately 500 communities across the country.

But, as Kosterow noted about the trees that were replaced, “It’s just unfortunate that the trees had to be demolished.” While city officials say they don’t want topping to be seen as an acceptable practice, it would seem more logical to have Kosterow or the arborist pay to plant trees elsewhere rather than destroying the trees in front of his business.

That is one of the lessons to be learned from the controversy. But the most important one is the need to know the rules and to follow them.