Sunday, September 22, 2013

Our Decisions Aren't Always Black and White

Very few of the decisions that have to be made by council are simple ones.  A range of factors has to be considered, and not all of them are easily measurable, or clearly right or wrong.

However, all too often that's exactly the kind of rhetoric that is used in council chambers, or behind the scenes when proponents are pushing for a decision that will allow them to do something, or when those who oppose the decision want to ensure that you will back their point of view.  And emotions usually come into play.

The decision about use of property on the riverbank is one of those decisions, where we have to sift through the emotions and passion before making a decision.  And we have to face the unfortunate fact that we can't make everybody happy.

The proposed seniors' building is a discretionary use in the area, which is why it is before council, for the third time in five years.  Previous approvals by council have expired, and the current proposal is different from the previous proposals, which is why it requires the same scrutiny.  And discretionary means just that, it is up to council to decide if a particular proposal fits well in the area.

One of the black/white statements made by some councillors is that this new council has said that we're open to development, therefore we have to approve this.  I don't actually recall council making that statement, and in any case being open to development doesn't mean that we rubber stamp every opportunity that is presented.

Another black/white argument that was made to me by one of the proponents is that I should support this so that seniors can have a nice view of the river.  The implication there is that if I don't agree, then I'm against seniors (just like I'm against flowers and trees).  Views are nice, but shouldn't come into the equation.

I do not support this proposal for a couple of reasons - I think that its footprint is too large for the area, and that the proponents are underestimating the space required, particularly for parking, in order to get approval from council. It will be a three storey building, towering over the single family homes in the area.  Once the building is complete, it will be too late to do anything about it, and the owners will be free to, for example, convert assisted living spaces to condos.

They are asking to take over boulevard space, which is one of the reasons that I think it's too large, and I've been told that some residents have been pressured to sell their homes so that more area will be available.  And their statement that residents don't need that much parking may seem sensible on the surface, until I remember that Mont St. Joseph's has asked twice for surrounding park space to be rezoned for parking, because even though their residents may not own vehicles, staff and visitors need far more parking than was originally estimated.  All too often we underestimate parking needs, and the cars don't go away - they end up parked on streets, blocking driveways and decreasing visibility and street safety.

I don't deny that having another facility to pay taxes benefits the city, but we have to remember that this isn't the only property in the city that's available - that's another black/white statement that can lead to tunnel vision.

I've received more phone calls on this issue than any other that I can recall in my thirteen years on council.  The neighbours have raised some valid concerns, and as I said, we need to sift through everything before making a decision that will affect the people who live in the area, not just for a short time, but forever.

"Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Think Before You Plant

A few people have asked about the motion that I put forward and which was passed at last week's council meeting - that the city stop automatically planting a tree whenever a city-owned tree is cut down.

This came about because, as part of the repairs done to the street and underlying water pipes in the 100 block of 10th Street East this summer, the boulevard on the south side of the street, and the trees on that boulevard, were removed, putting the new sidewalk right next to the roadway, and adding a couple of feet between the residential properties and the sidewalk.  And in this couple of feet, between fences and, in one case, a large hedge, the city was preparing to plant trees.  When I asked why we were going to that expense in an area where trees weren't needed, and were unlikely to thrive due to lack of room, I was told that it was city policy to replace every tree that is removed.

I'm not sure that's true.  Two years ago, after a water main break that required digging up the boulevard in front of my house, one of the aged Manitoba maples in front of our house was removed.  It hasn't been replaced.  We weren't sorry to see it go, since it was, as most of the older Manitoba maples in Midtown, decaying and risking dropping branches on the street and sidewalk.  But it hasn't been replaced, nor have we heard anything from the city about that option.  And just for the record, I don't think a tree is needed there - the visibility pulling out onto 10th Street from 4th Avenue is poor enough.

In any case, I've heard my forester wife comment often enough that proposed solutions like planting a tree for every one that is cut are making things too simple.  Part of good forestry, even urban forestry, means planting the right tree in the right place at the right time.  And one of the responsibilities of urban forestry is taking proper care of those trees that you have.  Judging by the rotten branches and stubs that I see in my walks around the downtown neighbourhoods, we don't do a good enough job of that.  There are far too many trees with dead branches that are just waiting for a good windstorm, or less, to drop, and far too many where a half-hearted pruning job has just removed part of the problem, and the rest of the crown is obviously dying.  And many of the trees planted along Central Avenue and the feeder streets need to have the grates that surround their roots cleaned out on a regular basis.   I would far rather city crews were taking care of these problems in a systematic way, than planting trees without thinking, particularly if, as often seems to be the case, the replacement trees are those same Manitoba maples that develop problems at a relatively early age.

This doesn't mean that the city won't plant replacement trees.  If one is removed from in front of your house, and you want it replaced, all you have to do is ask.  In other areas, particularly parks and medians, planting trees is more likely to be the right choice.

All I'm asking is that, rather than following a one size fits all policy, we look a little more closely to ensure that the right tree is being planted in a space where it will have room to grow to maturity, and that the decision is part of an overall plan to ensure that Prince Albert keeps its urban forest healthy and growing, providing all the benefits that trees can provide to a city.

"As the poet said 'only God can make a tree', probably because it's so hard to figure out how to get the bark on." - Woody Allen

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Look Back at Summer

As we ease into fall, although the temperatures are still quite summer-like, but with shorter days and cooler nights,  I find it only natural to look back at the last few months.  While they are quieter on the formal council front, with fewer meetings, personally summer is not usually a time of much relaxing for me.

I did have the opportunity to spend almost a week in Saskatoon at the national conference of police commissions.  This was an excellent conference, with many good speakers and discussion opportunities.  The focus was on the ever-increasing effect of mental health on police work - with changes to mental health practices, more and more of the issues that police have to deal with involve people with mental health problems.  It makes an already complicated job even more so, and it was certainly fascinating to hear the experiences of police departments across Canada, and learn about some of their initiatives.

And while council may be less active in the summer, I had many people comment to me about the amount of work that they could see being done on our streets, and most saw it as being extremely positive - they can see their tax dollars at work, and appreciate that.  The annoyance of having to find alternative routes to get where you're going is seen to be just that - a temporary annoyance.  Andrea's normal walk to work had to take a detour with the extensive work done in the 100 block of 10th Street East, but even she found unexpected benefits in the yellow raspberries growing along a fence in the back alley detour that she had to take for a week or two.

So how have I been filling my days?  Once again, I've been reminded that one of the joys of owning a hundred plus year old house is that there is never a shortage of work to keep me busy.  I replaced five of the windows in the house, took the old carpet out of the television room and replaced it with laminate flooring (sadly, I took a shortcut on that job which means I'll have to do it over, likely this winter), and, most notably, I've been replacing the shingles on the north side of our roof.

I've had to remove several layers of old shingles as well as the original cedar shakes, with their many, many really old tiny nails, replace some of the underlying boards, and take down the chimneys - more complicated than I originally thought it would be.  And working on a steeply pitched roof isn't something that many people are willing to volunteer for.  In fact, it's not something that I want anyone inexperienced to even try - just too risky if you don't know what you're doing, or if you're not comfortable with heights.  My efforts to hire experienced help weren't successful either, so except for much appreciated help in cleaning up the old shingles and bricks, it's been a solo effort.

It gets quite hot up there, but I'm grateful that there hasn't been too much rain to slow me down.  I figure that I'm more than halfway there, and the tricky parts are done, so I can see that I'll soon be coming to the end of the days when I have to strap on the safety harness.

Fewer council meetings through the summer means that our agendas when we get back in September are a bit thicker than usual, but hopefully summer has been a rejuvenating break for all of us.  I think that as this new council moves into its second year, and we all become more familiar with this more open and cooperative way of working, our focus on making our efforts more effective and efficient will continue to show results.

"Summertime is always the best of what might be." Charles Bowden