Standing up for trees

TreeKeepers, a citizens’ organisation which promotes the conservation of trees in the urban forest, is raising the red flag on the impact property developments are having on our tree canopies.

These past few years, in accordance with the City of Cape Town’s residential densification process, quite a few large erven in the southern suburbs have been subdivided into smaller erven or multi-unit sectional title developments.

TreeKeepers was recently asked to investigate possible damage to a yellowwood tree located on the boundary of 3 Parry Road, Claremont.

About a year ago, the densely wooded property was sold to Linear Developments which has since applied for the plot to be subdivided into five portions. An online property advertisement states the sizes of the erven as 748m², 430m², 268m², 242m² and 199m², respectively. 

According to information provided to People’s Post, the developer met with people in the neighbourhood prior to development. 

Reportedly, neighbours were assured at the meeting that the majority of the trees on the property, including a tall palm tree – considered a landmark in the area – would be retained. It has been claimed that although some trees were left, significant trees were removed, the palm tree being one of them.

At the end of last year, the digging of trenches and the building of perimeter walls began on the property.

A few weeks ago, two members of TreeKeepers – Henk Egberink and Heleen Louw – went to inspect a yellowwood tree growing on the property after having received information which claimed that workers were digging trenches close to the protected tree and chopping into its root zone at its base.

According to the National Forests Act 84 of 1998, section 15 1a, no person may cut, disturb, damage or destroy any protected tree, unless they apply for a permit from the City of Cape Town to do so.

“Yellowwood trees fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF),” Egberink says. 

During the site visit, the TreeKeepers members took photographs of the tree and spoke to the director of Linear Developments, Di Paterson, and the builders.

“I suggested the developer consult with one of our local top arborists, Francois Krige, on what could be done to safeguard the tree,” Egberink says.

When People’s Post questioned Paterson on the matter, she said that while digging a trench, a root of the yellowwood tree had been accidentally nicked.

“We stopped immediately,” she says.“It is a tiny nick and not a material transgression. We have also met with an arborist to clarify the law surrounding the maintenance of the tree, as well as an architect and an engineer to determine ways to bridge the tree’s roots.”

DAFF was scheduled to conduct an inspection yesterday, Monday 16 March. 

In an email sent to People’s Post on Monday 9 March, Paterson says: “We will need to apply for a permit to trim up to 25% of the canopy, most of which is dead wood.”

Paterson states the idea that Linear Developments only agreed to meet with an arborist once the neighbours notified TreeKeepers is incorrect. She says developers are required by council to hire an arborist and to submit a tree survey at the beginning of the subdivision application process.

“We engaged with an arborist in August 2018 to put together a tree survey to identify which trees were protected and which were invasive.”

Paterson says that a meeting with interested neighbours during the advertising period for the subdivision was held.

“This is not required by council, but we like to stay engaged with the community. It is an open forum to hear any concerns neighbours might have with the project and where we could try and accommodate them.” 

She says at this meeting they did promise they would try their best to keep as many established trees as possible. 

“It is normally in the developer’s interest to take out as many trees at the start of the project as this gives the builder more space to work and the one-time call-out fee can then be spread among all of the trees.”

Paterson says Linear Developments has always tried to keep established trees even to its own detriment. 

“We like to leave trees on site until we map out the properties and see exactly where the foundations, walls and services go.”

She explains trees are hard to map accurately on plan. 

“There is no telling how deep or far the root system of a tree spreads. We indicate on the building plan that a tree can stay, but in reality, the root system interferes with foundations or services.” 

Paterson says this is what happened with the palm tree. She says although it looked fine on paper, the tree started tilting when they started digging the sewerage trenches.

“We then knew the palm was compromised, and, unfortunately, it had to come down.”

Clare Burgess, TreeKeepers’ chair, says a qualified arborist, specialised tree worker or landscape architect can plot on a plan the estimated extent of the tree root zone underground, which normally extends to the outer edge of the canopy of the tree. 

“Most developers do not want to acknowledge this and do not set back the foundations of walls or trenches to accommodate this area which can be extensive and eats into the profit margins of any development,” says Burgess. 

Paterson states that none of the trees removed at 3 Parry Road were protected trees. 

“We are only talking about alien trees. When our arborist marks a protected tree, we build our houses around it.” 

Burgess says the urban forest in Cape Town is largely made up of exotic (alien) tree species so if developers use the argument that it is justified to remove any trees which are not protected species, then the City will soon have no trees growing in the suburbs. 

“All trees are critical to the health and well-being of the citizens of Cape Town. TreeKeepers appeals to developers to consider saving as many trees on a property as possible since it is the right thing to do.”

Paterson asks that residents reserve their judgement until the project is complete.

“We have put extensive flower beds in place to accommodate many trees, and have sourced these from Induli Nursery in Sun Valley. We will be planting close to 35 trees once the project nears completion,” Paterson says.

In a later communication, Paterson informed People’s Post that the plot on which the yellowwood tree stands has been sold.

“Whilst Linear Developments remains committed to protecting the yellowwood tree, we cannot vouch for what the new owners of the land will do,” Paterson says.

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