I promised myself I was done being angry about the removal of the Notre Dame poplars. It’s been a year since the City granted permission for Notre Dame School to go ahead with their artificial turf stadium and remove the trees, so I’ve had twelve months to prepare. I did feel prepared.
But now they’re taking the trees down during nesting season!!!
I would have thought this would be a clear and hard “no” from the City permit people, since the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994) makes it illegal to disturb the nests of breeding native birds. To my horror, it seems it’s pretty easy to get around this.
It was only this Saturday we received an email from the school to let us know that they plan to start work in the next couple of weeks, beginning with “tree work.” They had already hired a “registered biologist” to assess the presence of nesting birds.
Apparently the biologist submitted his report to the City Arborist yesterday and the cutting permit (valid for only 48 hours) has been given. We can expect the cutting to begin any moment.
The biologist did find a couple of small nests in the lower branches of two trees, so they will be omitted from the falling for a few weeks pending further inspection. If we wish to see the actual report, we need to submit a Freedom of Information Request.
The thing is, I’m certain there are FAR MORE than a couple of low nests in all 20+ of those tall poplars.
Right now, finding a small nest in those trees would be like a game of 3-D moving Where’s Waldo, in which Waldo is not wearing a striped sweater and red hat, and is actively trying to remain hidden.
The trees are up to 70 feet tall and currently covered in a dense and dancing canopy of leaves. Here, in some rather bad video camera work, I pan down just one of the trees, using a zoom lens. The aim is to give you an idea of how hard it would be to spot an individual small nest.
Why do I think there are nests in those trees?
While I’m not a registered biologist, I have lived next to these trees for 29 years, and spend countless hours closely watching the trees and the local birds.
In years gone by it’s been easy to spot crows’ nests — partly because of their larger size, but mainly because they get a very early start, before the leaves are out.
Marvin and Mavis, spring 2019
Ironically, there are no crows’ nests in the poplars this spring. Perhaps it’s because they were smart enough to read the City permit signs last year! More likely, it’s because there were too many hungry bald eagles using the poplars as a baby crow buffet.
I am, however, sure that the poplars ARE currently hosting many other smaller birds’ nests right now.
For example, one small ornamental plum tree in front of our house is currently hosting a bushtit and a Northern Flicker nest. If there are at least two nests in that one tiny tree, how many could we estimate to be in the spacious poplars?
The poplars could accommodate nests of many species, from cavity nesters like the flickers, downy woodpeckers and black capped chickadees to other birds like bushtits, sparrows and robins.
This white crowned sparrow flew out of the poplars this morning and landed on the school fence. His, coincidentally, is one of the nests the biologist found in the lower branches. Northern Flickers and other species’ nests would be much higher up and really hard, if not impossible to spot.
I’d have thought that much better way to assess how many nests are likely in the poplars would be to look at the local and current range of bird species,* and look at the nesting potential in the poplars and make a fair occupancy estimate from that.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way things are to go, so I am waiting here, tensed for the sound of chainsaws.
Like this baby house finch in my garden, I’m a bit beyond words at this point.
Raccoon snoozing in the poplars in happier days.
*Bird species currently in our immediate neighbourhood: Robins, Anna’s Hummingbird, White Crowned Sparrows, Song sparrows, Golden Crowned Sparrows, Black Capped Chickadees, Juncoes, Bushtits, Northern Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers, Wilsons’s Warblers, Violet Green Swallows, Crows, House Finches, Goldfinches, Pine Siskins … these are the ones I can think of just off the top of my head.
I was very disappointed when this postcard arrived in our mailbox earlier this week. The matter of the Notre Dame School football stadium has now been put to the Development Permit Board for a decision on June 10.
This is personally very disappointing, because I’ll be in the UK for my long-planned trip and won’t be able to attend.
On a more general level it’s sad because it means, in spite of all of the research, articles, information and letters shared with the Mayor and Council, they have opted to look the other way and leave it in the hands of City staff.
This post is based on a letter I’ve just sent to each individual Councillor and the Mayor.
While the fate of our neighbourhood is a relatively small municipal matter, the character of a city is made up of these “small” issues and how they are dealt with. The principles that are being ignored in this situation are vital ones. Allowing them to slide says something disturbing about our city.
The permit process has been unfair from the start. Front line Permit staff were not correctly briefed on the content of the original permit (DE410128) and went on to treat the matter, in error, as a minor permit amendment for months. Although they were forced to admit the mistake in late March 2019, the process has still not been amended in any meaningful way. Now there is a rush to get it over the finish line by June 10, only weeks after it was “discovered” to be a new permit application at all.
Because of all this confusion, no independent studies have been done on safety, traffic, parking, noise and environmental problems posed by the stadium. A 2018 one-sided “Tree Risk Assessment” has been allowed to supersede an earlier, far more complete, Arborist report that said the trees on Kaslo could be saved by setting the field back by 5.5 metres.
While this may seem a minor matter, is top of mind for many of the people living in our neighbourhood. 360 of us signed a petition to that effect, and many people wrote letters to the City of Vancouver on the topic. As Vancouver taxpayers, we stand to have our lives turned upside down by this project. Beneficiaries of the stadium are students, parents, staff, alumni of a private school, many of whom do not live in Vancouver, let alone close enough to the school to be affected.
We accept that our area is becoming denser as more people need housing. Housing people is a necessity and a moral issue. A recreational facility for people who drive here and leave is not.
This issue could well come back to haunt Council later. Notre Dame School insists that their stadium will be used very occasionally for school games, drawing negligible traffic. If you look at the cases of St. Patrick’s School in Toronto and Immaculata High School in Ottawa the potential problems are made crystal clear. In each example the sports fields there are rented extensively, causing traffic and noise problems sufficient to destroy local quality of life. Legal action is pending in Toronto, and City officials in both cities are left scrambling to retroactively solve the problem.
Once a permit is issued, there will, as far as we can tell, be nothing preventing Notre Dame School from emulating the revenue-gathering practices of these Ontario schools, in spite of current assurances to the contrary.
Vancouver Council has a chance to get in front of this issue now and take a greater interest in what it really means for our neighbourhood — and for other Vancouver neighbourhoods where similar issues will no doubt be arising soon.
This council was recently elected on the promise to do business differently than the previous Vision Council, with more listening to, and consulting with, citizens.
I have asked them look at this matter again. Live up to the promise: halt the rubber stamping Development Permit Board meeting, and subject this project to proper scrutiny.
Aside from the issues explored in my letter, which I tried to keep as brief and simple possible, there is the equally important point that the proposed stadium flies in the face of almost every aspect of Vancouver’s much vaunted Greenest City Action Plan.
I’ve already written at length about that in an earlier post, way back in January – Greenest City 2020?
WHAT TO DO NEXT?
If you have any thoughts/frustrations on this process, please send them to Mayor and Council. There is a handy list of all their contact addresses on the Notre Dame Neighbours website.
If, by chance, you are free on Monday, June 10 at 3pm and would like to speak on this matter for up to 5 minutes, you can register with the Development Permit Board Assistant Kathy Cermeno. You can call her at 604-873-7770 or contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Even if you don’t feel comfortable to speak, you could just attend the meeting and support those who do make presentations.
I am bitterly disappointed I can’t be there. I’ll be celebrating my 65th birthday with with good friends in Wales that very day, but will be there in thought.
Written submissions are also accepted. Please email Kathy Cermeno or (email@example.com) or send a letter to her attention at City Hall, 453 West 12th Ave.Vancouver, BC V5Y 1V4.
Since September, I’ve done a lot of writing. Probably more writing than I’ve done since my long ago thesis on Anglo-Saxon poetry.
I’ve been writing letters … so many letters … to Vancouver City Council and staff.
They’ve been rather boring letters, full of carefully researched references to building permits, footnotes and traffic management plans. Petition wording, schematic views and the endless argument for community consultation.
Google map view of Notre Dame School. and surrounding area. Green = proposed artificial turf stadium: Red = new parking lot
In summary, the issue is this: In 2004-5 Notre Dame School (located at the end of our street) revealed plans for a new campus, including a sports stadium and the removal of perimeter trees. Local residents were relatively happy about the new buildings, but very much opposed to the sports stadium and tree removal. We rallied to state our opposition and in 2006 a compromise was reached when the school agreed to build a grass practice field instead of the stadium, and to keep the trees. In 2008 they received a building permit for this. The buildings were finished a few years ago, but the sports field construction did not start. In September we found out, purely by accident, that, in January of this year, the school had submitted a request for a minor amendment to the 2008 building permit to the City of Vancouver. The amendment would allow a sunken, full-sized artificial turf games field with stadium seating, and necessitate the removal of the trees on the west side of the site. Neither the school nor the City informed the local community of this change. We have been writing letters asking that this change not be allowed as a minor amendment, but require a new building permit, which would then create the opportunity for community input. Two months in, and we haven’t received any meaningful response from the City, the school, or the Archdiocese which overlooks the school.
Most of my official stadium-related correspondence with City Hall has centred on classic topics like street safety, traffic, parking and noise. All valid and very real concerns for our neighbourhood.
But now I’m taking some time to write an open letter straight from the heart on an even bigger subject — the one that really keeps me awake at night.
Dear City of Vancouver,
Welcome new mayor and council members. You are a politically diverse group and I hope you’ll be creative and collaborative in your decision making, and will do the City of Vancouver proud over the next few years.
This morning I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with someone from the University of BC Forestry Department talking about a project called Citizen Cool Kits — an initiative encouraging neighbourhoods to come together and hatch ideas to lower their carbon footprint — all in a community-based effort to combat climate change. An important aspect of this is the maintenance and enhancement of the “urban forest”.
It’s a great idea, right? A positive approach to climate change challenges, very suited to a city that prides itself on being green and progressive.
But then I think about the school’s stadium plan, which the City seems poised to endorse. It could hardly be any more contrary to the idea of being collaborative, or climate and environment friendly.
What we have currently at Notre Dame School, from a neighbourhood point of view, are some quite spiffy looking new buildings, a rutted parking lot, a pile of rubble that has waist high grass has grown over it, and rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees on the north, east and west sides of the campus. It’s not exactly a beautiful site (or sight) but the trees do form a visual curtain and create a towering habitat for many bird species, from ravens to bushtits.
In an area woefully under-served by parks or green space of any kind, those trees have been, for as long as I’ve lived here (27 years) served as a low footprint vertical park space. Green poster-children for densification. When there aren’t many leaves, the stand of poplars is like a giant shadow puppet theatre, starring a huge and varied cast of birds and animals.
And this year, in April, Mountain Bluebirds – yes, Mountain Bluebirds! – spent a weekend at the school feasting on the smorgasbord of bugs living in the overgrown grass on the rubble pile before continuing on their journey north.
Male Mountain Bluebird on the chainlink fence at Notre Dame School.
Literally, a bluebird of happiness on a shoulder
A raven often visits the dilapidated parts of the school campus, resting on the parking lot fence or perching in the poplar branches, peacefully ignoring the inevitable crow harassment. His call cuts through the urban sounds of traffic and construction noise like a clear bell reminding us of the mountains and forests just a few miles away.
Environmentally, it’s alive. The trees and the grassy wasteland are doing their bit to capture carbon and host living things.
True, it’s not particularly attractive at the moment, and it’s certainly not doing the students at the school much good as they run around the school on the sidewalk or up to the local park for exercise and sports practice.
It would be wonderful to see them have an attractive sports field, as laid out in the 2008 permit.
Sports are an important part of the school curriculum, but surely there are other things that children need to experience and learn in school. Environmental studies? Ethics? Poetry? At my high school I loved the treed area by the grass hockey field and my best friend and I would read aloud to each other there at lunch breaks. Once a nerd, always a nerd.
If the school built a grass practice field as they agreed, it would save them millions of dollars over the cost of a fancy stadium. The trees could be saved and some of the savings could go into creating a border of native shrubs and grasses, encouraging the Mountain Bluebirds to visit every year. More fabulous educational possibilities – tracking the migratory path of the bluebird, exploring the challenges that climate change and human activity are posing for them on their journey, researching what could be added to the school grounds to make it an even more inviting stop over spot for them.
UBC’s Citizen Cool Kit also offers a great potential project for students to explore how the school could make their grounds as green as possible. They could map where Hastings Creek runs under the school and imagine the land they’re standing on as it was a hundred years ago. Who lived there? What did it look like? Ecology class could lead field trips on their very own campus!
If they go ahead with the sunken, artificial turf stadium, none of this will be possible.
First, the poplar trees will be doomed because the sunken field will run right up to the property line, and the root damage caused by such close proximity to a steep drop would make them unstable. City bylaws require that other trees replace those removed, but what tree of any size could grow atop an 8 foot retaining wall?
And don’t get me started on artificial turf! The City of Vancouver seems to love the stuff at the moment, especially as an “easy” answer for low maintenance sports facilities.
I covered a lot of my concerns about artificial turf in my early blog post, the cheerily titled Environmental Dead Zone — so I’ll just refer you to that. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the post for even more reading.
Urban nature is pretty tough, but it’s far from invincible. It needs some help in the form of creative thinking by planners, developers and politicians to thrive.
If the stadium plan goes ahead, I fear that there will far less birdsong in the neighbourhood. An absence of ravens, certainly no mountain bluebirds.
I imagine the crows will find reasons to stick around, if only to steal fast food wrappers dropped by stadium attendees and to laugh at our human folly.