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Developer defends right to deforest

Given enough time, a lowly acorn will grow into a mighty oak.

And if given enough time, a lot dotted with scrub will similarly grow into a thicket of trees.

That’s exactly what’s happened to a property along Oxford Street in London while developer Howard Katz says he’s waited for city hall to give him the go-ahead to turn it into a residential plot of high- and low-rises.

What’s upset some residents in the Cherryhill area is how Katz went ahead recently and levelled that thicket of trees, between the Fleetway Fun Centre and Cherryhill Village Mall, a move the city calls “premature.”

Katz says he’s been waiting since 1999 to move forward with his draft plan of subdivision.

“It was a piece of property that was supposed to be developed at some point,” said Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire, who’s received complaints from constituents who very likely thought — since it’s been more than 16 years — the trees would flourish on that spot forever.

“We’ve always had to try to have a good relationship with the city,” said Katz, who’s president of both ESAM Group and Sam Katz Developments, the developer in this case.

“All we were doing was within our rights.”

Katz says he would have happily obtained a permit from the city to deforest the land, but one isn’t required.

“There’s no permit for me to get,” he said. The area he cleared is only a small part of the total development.

A city official suggested the move jumped the gun.

“We have been talking to the developer about these tree removals, which we believe are premature as the planning process is not complete. The developer has co-operated in stopping the removals while we finalize the planning issues,” Andrew Macpherson, manager of environmental and parks planning, said in an email to The Free Press.

Asked if there’s a penalty for “prematurely” cutting down trees, Macpherson replied, “there may be issues with the tree removals that we will have to resolve through the approvals process.”

Another city official indicated the project’s time lag is unusual.

“A wait of 17 years is definitely not the norm. However, it should be noted that we do have another draft plan within the city which is still active since 1978,” said Allister MacLean, the city’s manager of development planning.

Katz points out most of the trees cut down had grown up while his company has been waiting to carry out its plans.

“This is not a forest that was there for 150 years,” he said. He hired a tree expert, who indicated which trees should be spared.

“We brought in an arborist,” Katz said, adding the city has been more amenable to listening in recent months, after years of the land left fallow.

Unlike current developments, Katz doesn’t have to extend his draft approval every three years, since it dates back to the 1990s.

Katz hopes to build 1,600 to 1,800 units on the site. He says area residents driving by on Oxford might see a lot of tree stumps, but what they won’t see is how much work is being done to preserve the property’s natural character.

“They don’t realize how much parkland we’re going to dedicate,” he said, including preserving a ravine that runs through the roughly 28-hectare property.

MacLean notes Katz has yet to register a site-specific site-plan application, a necessary preliminary step before creating the blocks of land on each individual site.