The Roots of Controversy in Cookstown

There’s a lot of finger-pointing and some shrugging over the removal of trees bordering the Belpark development in Cookstown.  It’s remarkable how the incident in Cookstown and the illegal cutting in Alcona were both unfortunate ‘misunderstandings’. Similarly peculiar how a developer that has owned a property for years can lose sight of where the property line is, or doesn’t understand what it is that a permit actually permits. It’s equally odd how those misguided, misinformed but obliging work crews can make short work of a stand of trees without verifying proper authorization.

Public reaction has focused around stiffer fines, and a stricter permit process. To me, these are only stop-gap measures. I would like to see developers, themselves, adopt a new mindset that voluntarily embraces the spirit and goals of Inspiring Innisfil, requiring them to engage the local neighbours in creative ways to achieve, as closely as possible, their vision of a modern urban village. Sticking a seductive marketing name such as  “Belpark” or “Forest Edge” on a same-old, suburban housing tract isn’t nearly good enough.

It would also require existing residents to accept that their neighbourhood will change, working with the Town and developer to achieve a result that best weaves the new into the old, maximizing the benefits and mitigating the negative aspects. Citizen involvement is critical now because numerous developments are in the pipeline well along the permit process. Many of them will be “grandfathered” past amendments to Innisfil’s new Official Plan and Zoning, while staff continue to implement many strategic recommendations. This will create an enormously frustrating delay in achieving recognizable progress toward the Inspiring Innisfil strategic plan. That is, unless developers themselves recognize the value of creating something uniquely original and inspiring.

Under existing rules, a property, such as the ones in these incidents, can sit idle for years while a developer waits for the right economic conditions to start the construction process. At the Town level, once zoning approval is granted, it is obliged to facilitate a project according to a set permit process. It was explained to me that a series of construction permits is issued according to a set sequence.  As it stands, ‘surface preparation’ such as grading can proceed before ‘subsurface preparation’, which includes installation of multiple utilities on the public right-of-way. From an engineering standpoint, this may make sense so that utility conduits can be designed for the actual reshaped landscape. It’s a given that a developer typically starts with a ‘blank slate’ erasing everything on the surface and reshaping it. It also has consequences for the surrounding public space used for sidewalks, boulevards, lighting, and multiple underground utilities.

It seems that the prevailing attitude as far back as 1999 was that any tree would be removed “if necessary”. Town engineers also expected that there was “a very high probability” that the existing mature trees would have to be removed to accommodate utilities.  It’s just that no one, over the last decade, thought to convey this information to residents. And Town engineers are unwilling to give a definitive answer until the actual site grading is complete and design of utility corridors is underway.  An explanation at Cookstown’s public meeting, which described the need for four different utility conduits directly in the path of the now felled, trees came much too late. Their assertion that other unworkable alternatives had been considered fell on deaf ears. My sense is that even if the Town had any legal authority to intervene, this housing development is “too far down the track” to be altered and the over-riding need for utilities will inevitably doom most, if not all, of the remaining trees.

How is it that neither the developer nor Town planners sensed any value in these mature trees? Why do Cookstown residents, then, feel such attachment and value in a row of trees that are officially described as ‘weak’, or ‘dying’ ? Tomoorow – Why we should all care.


Part 3: Innisfil – The View Beyond the Trees


Part 1: FYI to Developers: Trees Matter