Song of Sorrow

This is a guest post by my friend Sybil Rowe, who tries very hard to save a few trees here and there. This is her story of her recent efforts.

When I first arrived in Grandview Heights, a home that my friends referred to as “Paradise,” I was overwhelmed by the peace, serenity and sheer beauty of the land. My first morning, I awoke to the sound of a horse’s hooves walking slowly down my street. I remember the quiet, star lit night when I took my puppies outside just  before bed. The trees towered above. I heard the sound of a barn Owl. “Don’t you get my babies,” I sternly admonished. “Whoo whoo” came the soft reply. A few months later came the war with the Big Box Companies. We lost. That was the beginning of the urbanization of Grandview Heights. How I have learned to dread that word.

“High Density,” the form of urbanization chosen for our part of Grandview Heights, was originally designed for city centres and alongside heavy traffic routes, in order to prevent urban sprawl. By 2006, new Neighborhood Concept Plans approved by the City Council turned large and significant areas of beautiful Grandview Heights into high density sprawl, wiping out the countryside that the plans were originally designed to protect. Trees disappeared by the thousands. With them disappeared the habitat of owls, birds, and animals. The men at City Hall commonly refer to “nuking” the land.

One of the original environmental surveys highlights the beauties of Grandview Heights: “Madrone Environmental Services was retained by the City of Surrey to conduct an Environmental review and tree assessment of the Grandview Heights land use plan area in South Surrey….The visual appearance of Grandview Heights is strongly influenced by its tree resources. Much of the area is tree covered, and many older areas have stands of tall remnant Douglas Fir that convey a highly wooded ambience. These trees likely have significant value to property owners and residents in general, as well as far reaching amenity values stemming from energy savings, biodiversity, a sense of beauty and serenity, and pride of area. New development strategy in Grandview Heights must carefully consider the management of this important resource.”

Recently, three hundred and twenty six protected trees, mostly mature Douglas Firs and Western Red cedars, were approved for cutting for a development. Not one tree was saved. The application was passed without question. In its place was mostly RF 9 single family houses, leaving no room for a buttercup let alone a tree. Why had the Mayor and Council done this? A worrisome question indeed, and the answer is utterly horrifying. Had our municipal government given away their power to represent residents at the NCP process? No amount of questioning elicits a straight answer from City Hall.

There was a third adjacent development application that had not yet gone to Council, that contained a small cluster of very beautiful majestic Douglas Firs. They were so tall you could not see the tops of them, standing like beacons at the top of the hill. A young planner at the city worked with innovation and enthusiasm to develop a plan to save the small group of trees. Together with the developer’s engineer they devised a plan that could save this small cluster of nine trees. The developer was obliged, according to the rules, to relinquish five percent of his property, or give money in lieu to the Parks Department. The trees filled exactly that amount of land.

The Parks Department rejected the developer’s offer to save the trees. They didn’t fit the plan. Months of hard word and letters to developers pleading for a few trees here and there had yielded only four trees in that part of Sunnyside Heights comprising five developments. It was to have been seven trees, but the City and developers had changed their minds. A sidewalk is planned in the place where the tallest and most beautiful of them now stands.

The owner of one of the developments drove two of his clients in a golf cart up the street to show them the beautiful trees they were coming to. He did this numerous times, aggressively selling his houses. Of course, the clients don’t know that they are visiting a vanishing forest, and that it would be gone by the time they moved in to their new home. A once beautiful forested area is slowly turning into a hot “hell hole” of high density housing where trees are no longer tolerated by City or developer.

Two other magnificently treed areas in that quadrant are still left, but will be cut down for roads: one to 24th Ave., the other to 16th Ave. It isn’t just the RF9 houses being jammed into the space, but the roads, curbs, bicycle lanes, services and sidewalks that accompany them.

When finished, it will look like a giant cauldron of cement has been poured over the land, wiping out everything in its path. Land for parks are clearcut immediately for sports fields. Trees for rest and shade do not figure into the plans. These athletic parks are no replacement for a little back yard with a tree and a swing, a place to sit and look up at the stars on a summer night. Two years ago there was a public meeting for Area Four in Hazelmere. A resident stood up to plead the case for more tree retention. Saving Redwood Park was great, but we needed to maintain streetscape and the character and “feel” of the neighbourhood. The planner chairing the meeting curtly replied, “The trees are coming down, get used to it.”

If one were to pick up a Neighbourhood Concept Plan (NCP) and study it, one would be surprised by the difference between the plan, accompanied by pretty artist’s renditions, and the horrible “sea of cement” results of the finished developments. Many residents love their walks in the woods with their dogs, and will miss their owls when all the trees are cut. These people simply do not figure in the NCPs. Nor, for that matter, do the people who move here to live in what they think is a beautiful place. The City of Surrey is not developing Grandview Heights; rather, they are erasing it. A new urban centre will emerge, reigned over by a huge, overpowering structure known as the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, dominating the landscape. Of olympic proportions, this, according to the City of Surrey’s plan (file 77910-0029-00), with its “scale and strong presence, is the first step in the denser, more urbanized form planned for this part of Grandview Heights.” This was indeed, the first heavy cement foot, announcing to all that this green and beautiful land would disappear forever, to be replaced by a cement city, no different from any other place in North America. In other words, Grandview Heights is being slowly but surely annihilated. The situation is not helped by the miniscule fine of $300 per tree charged to the developers for cutting trees. A planner in Portland Oregon, told me that our fine was a “pittance” of the true value of a mature conifer.

What has happened to our sense of stewardship of the land, of the environment we leave to our children? It is not there. As one environmentalist told me, the Douglas Firs will all disappear and our children and grandchildren will not know them. They can never be replaced in this hard, asphalt land we are creating. The little ornamental trees being planted are no replacement for what we are losing.

What makes this picture so gloomy and so utterly different from the charming, artist-illustrated NCP that people, some of them reluctantly, agreed upon? There is an insidious process called The Amendment. This is how things sneak in that you don’t like. Invariably you will notice that the original density laid out in the plan is not good enough for the developer. He immediately applies for a higher density, which, of course, is almost always granted. Where is the honourable agreement between the City and its citizens? We cannot trust an agreement hammered out over months or even years. It means nothing.

A decent man of integrity who built fine houses wanted to make a change. He wanted to make a “swap and trade” deal with the city which would have resulted in a whole acre of mature forest being saved, as well as saving a large portion of streetscape of 24th Ave. The city was giving him a difficult time because some land for soccer fields would be lost. On another of his developments there is clear respect for the land; every tree and shrub that could be saved had been carefully guarded. Other developers who wanted to save trees and create beautiful projects have had to walk away, because the City had made it impossible for them.

Just recently, there was much talk about the highly touted “Biodiversity Plan,” a history-making document. On viewing a huge map of the aforementioned at City Hall, I saw, to my horror, that all the wonderful “green” protected parts came to an abrupt end at South Surrey. The forests on the west side were protected, as one would expect. I looked for the tiny forest, part of the animal corridor, next to the Pacific Heights Elementary School that those children had fought for. It was not to be seen.

We cannot survive alone. Man is not an island. We have seen, by now, what kind of development will overcome South Surrey. One might as well have taken a black felt pen and written along the line where South Surrey began, “Now it’s your turn.” A man who works for the city said, “They’re nuking the place. There is no balance in development anymore. They are not interested in trees, they are interested in dollars.” Another said, “It’s going to be bloody awful and I don’t know what to do about it. If you want to know what Grandview Heights is going to look like, go out to Clayton.”

I see the lonely, rundown streets, once vibrant and tended with pride, awaiting in ghostly silence the chain saw and excavator.  My own street has joined them, slipping quietly away, house by house, almost unnoticed. Yet somehow, I must continue, at least try to awaken people to what is happening before it is too late. There is very little time left. The peace has gone out of my house. I no longer enjoy the wonderful trees as I drive about town. I am too worried about their future. How long will they survive? The owl and I are confused and frightened. We fly from tree to tree. We don’t know where to go.


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