6 October 2022

Saving trees and an aggressive infill agenda? It's one or the other, say builders

| Lottie Twyford
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Building development construction site

New tree laws could mean homeowners and developers have to pay up for removing ‘regulated’ trees. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The government must reconcile the “competing priorities” of an aggressive infill agenda – 70 per cent of all new development – with its desire to protect trees, the Territory’s construction industry says.

The Master Builders Association (MBA) ACT has accused the government’s new Urban Forest Bill of dramatically increasing red tape around the protection and removal of trees.

New laws, released for community consultation in April, proposed stricter regulations and financial penalties for developers and homeowners who remove trees.

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If enacted, the bill would establish a tree bond system and regulate all trees on public land, regardless of their size. More trees on private land would also be regulated.

Homeowners who remove a tree would have to plant an additional two per tree removed or pay $600 each if they cannot.

Penalties for developers would be much higher – somewhere between $2140 and $14,980 – depending on size and location.

The laws are not intended to apply to dangerous trees.

Minister for City Services Chris Steel said the proposed laws would protect the ACT’s tree canopy and reduce the urban heat island effect. Photo: File.

Transport and City Services Minister Chris Steel said the laws would help the Territory reach its 30 per cent tree canopy target by 2045.

An additional 450,000 trees will need to be planted before then for that to occur.

Michael Hopkins, CEO of the Master Builders ACT, told a committee hearing into the proposed laws on Thursday (6 October) that while the industry supports the bill’s intent, the government’s priorities aren’t making sense.

Michael Hopkins

MBA ACT CEO Michael Hopkins said the construction industry supports the intent of the Urban Forest Bill. Photo: Region.

He’s not convinced the tree rules fit in with the Territory’s infill agenda, saying instead they highlight an “inherent conflict”.

“The policy is unclear at the moment. One part of government says the policy is to maximise development and another policy of government says it’s to protect trees,” Mr Hopkins said.

“You can’t achieve everything on every site.”

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The ACT Government’s infill agenda states that 70 per cent of growth must happen within the existing urban footprint.

Mr Hopkins assumed a large proportion of the existing tree canopy also sat within that area and rejected suggestions developers went into a site with a view to bulldozing all existing trees.

He said in many cases developers viewed existing trees as an “opportunity”. But he noted when the government sold blocks, they were sold with a predestined purpose, including how many dwellings the site could accommodate.

He questioned what would happen when developers came into existing suburbs to build units or even higher-density apartments on blocks with established trees.

“What are we going to do if half of those sites are covered in trees? Is the priority given to protecting the trees or accommodating more development?” Mr Hopkins asked.

“Those questions must be answered by the government when it sets its policies.”

Mr Hopkins has urged consultation on the bill be paused and for the elements contained in it to be incorporated into a broader planning review.

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Mr Steel rebuffed these concerns.

He said developers would be given a clear choice – not remove the trees and design around them or plant new ones on site if they were approved to remove them.

“That is going to challenge some developers, there’s no doubt about it, because some aren’t doing the right thing at the moment,” he said.

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A very good point. Can architects come up with designs that have 30% tree cover AND ubran infill? Will developers agree with those designs? Theoretically, urban infill does not mandate plot ratios so high that 30% canopy cannot be achieved. However developers will always want to maximise their profits within the legal constraints set by government. It is looking like it will be left to existing open spaces to provide the mature trees that will make up Canberra’s 30% canopy cover and these are mostly the responsibility of government to plant and maintain. Just to keep up with the current canopy cover all trees felled on private land will need to be replaced with trees on nearby government land. Oh, and there’s the matter of urban heat islands where there is infill with extensive concrete driveways and building materials that store heat.

You can easily have both, you just need to build taller buildings on smaller footprints.

If the government would allow it….

It is perfectly possible, if the right trees are selected and the buildings designed to accommodate them. In Canberra deciduous trees make our homes more comfortable, providing shade (sometimes flowers and fruit) in warmer weather, whilst letting the sunshine in during winter.

Good urban design should make it all possible. We see it on much smaller blocks in Sydney. I would hope that the Master Builders’ Association would see this as an opportunity to demonstrate high level skills, instead of complaining and making excuses for excluding trees.

Additionally, we have nature strips, median strips and other open spaces that could be used for more extensive vegetation. Especially where there are wide verges, there can be gardens. More trees with better care ensures this is possible, if we stop selling off existing green spaces and stop concreting or paving them over. It makes for a better city to live in for all of us, residents, visitors, birds and other wildlife.

We could have both but there is no political will to do so. House sizes could be much, much smaller which would provide land for trees. However who is going to give up their media room and butler’s pantry for that? The government could enforce the rules requiring new builds to plant trees rather than allowing acres of concrete and plastic grass. And areas of denser housing could have green spaces within them so that a trip to a park doesn’t require packing up the car.

Tuggeranong suffers with the trees and infill happens for the cherry-picked government plots. We end up with all the natives that no one else wants.

HiddenDragon8:47 pm 06 Oct 22

Sounds like business as usual from the ACT government – the all-too-common cocktail of one-eyed zealotry, ad hockery and revenue-driven pragmatism which, in this case, will deliver sprawling heat islands of over-built ugliness garnished with token trees and struggling saplings here and there.

The over-reach of the proposed tree legislation will ensure that more and more householders will not plant new trees (even if they have the space) and will remove smaller trees before they get caught by that legislation.

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