The saga of the Illawarra flame tree and the old Rose Gum

The mature Illawarra flame tree and Rose gum in Clayton Close park.

The mature Illawarra flame tree and Rose gum in Claymore Close park.

On Wednesday night (16th April), the City of Swan council voted (8 councillors to 6) to uphold a previous decision to chop down two mature, healthy trees on public land and not allow consultation with the broader community. The following tale would seem hard to believe, but it happened and is a ridiculous example of poor processes and decision making by City of Swan Councillors.

 Firstly the background and history

1) On 22nd January, a petition by 11 local residents was presented to Council to remove the two trees on Claymore Close Park, the larger  Rose Gum (Eucalyptus grandis) and smaller Illawarra Flame (Brachychiton acerifolia).

“The reasons put forward by the petitioners for the removal of the trees were the mess in the park made by the shedding bark and small branches from the tree, the risk of large branches excising from the tree, and the risk associated with the falling of the tree during storm and wind events.” – City of Swan

City officers visited the site and found the debris to be “normal
seasonal habits of this species of tree”, but in addition an expert Arborist was consulted and a report prepared -

“The report identified that the trees were healthy and in sound condition with no remedial works required. The risk assessment confirmed that the trees represent a low risk to the public.” – City of Swan, my emphasis.

Therefore at the Council meeting on 5th March, Council staff recommended that the two trees remain, but “If Council resolves to remove the trees, it is recommended that such removal be subject to consultation with the community.

The councillors present voted unanimously to retain the trees (14-0). So far so good, a logical, evidence based result. All the above can be read in the council recommendation and arborists report.

2) Three weeks later at the next council meeting Midland/Guildford ward Councillor Daniel Parasiliti, who was absent on family matters from the last meeting, moved a new motion to remove the trees. Stating that:

“Record the reason for the motion is that it is not accepted that the trees (subject of this petition) are of ‘low risk’ and it is believed that they pose an unsatisfactory risk to local residents.”

This is when a major flaw in the accessibility and accountability of council meetings becomes evident. Nothing is recorded of the debate, statements or arguments made in the Council minutes. Only the motion, outcome (9-5) and those who voted for chopping the trees (Crs Cheung, Elliott, Gregorini, Haynes, McNamara, Parasiliti, Trease, Williams and Zannino) and those against (Crs Bailey, Congerton, Lucas, McDonnell and Wainwright).

The only reason I had any idea about this was a friend happened to be there and mentioned some of the false and illogical arguments made by Cr Parasiliti, for example, ‘neither the residents group, the Guildford Association, or Transition Town Guildford had opposed the motion, so clearly they support cutting down the trees’. What!?

What happens if you have no idea such a motion is being moved? Presumably ratepayer, community groups and even broader residents should be informed of relevant motions or consulted? Why was the original staff recommendation (above), to go to a community consultation if the trees are to be removed, not enacted?

Or what happens if you happen to have a clash with another meeting that night?  Surely in this age of technology the council could record audio of all proceedings of meetings and provide them online for residents who were absent or have accessibility issues in getting to meetings. This would allow all residents in such a large and diverse City to hear what is said by their representatives. I understand the South Perth council and some other metro councils already do this.

Nonetheless, I gather that Cr Parasiliti and Cr Gregorini argued, contrary to their own staff and expert evidence of arborist, that the report was flawed (branches were found on the ground which were 5 cm and not 3.5 cm, and the tree was not viewed on a windy day), and therefore poses an “unsatisfactory risk to local residents”. How a unanimous vote by council can change next meeting to a 9-5 defeat is perplexing to say the least. Did the trees suddenly become more dangerous three weeks later?

Other questions this raises are:

  • Was the consultant given a chance to rebut the statements made by Councillors regarding the report?
  • If the report is actually flawed, why did the council pay for it in the first place? And will they be seeking reimbursement?

This decision also sets a dangerous precedent. Without a pressing need or demonstrated risk, can residents simply lobby to have public trees removed?

The final chapter

3) For the next meeting Cr Bailey moved a motion to rescind the previous decision to chop down the trees, with the intention of allowing community consultation on the matter. I gave a deputation on the issue on behalf of Transition Town Guildford, which is pasted below.

Unfortunately, the council voted against the motion (6-8): For, Crs Bailey, Congerton, Färdig, Lucas, McDonnell and Wainwright. Those against allowing community consultation Crs Elliott, Gregorini, Haynes, McNamara, Parasiliti, Trease, Williams and Zannino.

It was extremely disappointing that all three of our local Midland/Guildford Councillors (listed below) voted against this motion. Not only to chop down mature, healthy public trees, but to not even allow a stay of execution for community consultation.

Personally, it was also disturbing to hear the arguments being made in favour of cutting down public trees by those against the motion. Paraphrased as:

  • The Gum tree is out of place, it’s too high and wide for a small park (Cr Gregorini)
  • Gum trees drop limbs, I don’t trust them (Cr Haynes)
  • Exchange of trees makes up for it (Cr Elliott)
  • Local residents should decide, it’s in a cul de sac not Stirling Square (Cr Parasiliti)
  • There’s no new evidence or petition to refute assertion of a flawed report/high risk (Cr Parasiliti)
  • What’s more valuable, a tree or a life? (Cr McNamara)

Other Councillors did address some of these arguments, but it’s frustrating that members of the public aren’t able to address these in the debate. Here are some  quick rebuttals:

  • This is Australia, Gum trees are our native flora and Rose Gums are one of the original historic trees of Guildford.
  • The tree is in the middle of a park and not over hanging private property. Benefits of trees increase with size, so the bigger the better I say.
  • Yes, Gum trees drop limbs, but some species are more prone than others. And if an expert says the tree is healthy and low risk what more can you do.
  • Mature trees which are potentially 50 years old cannot simply be ‘replaced’ by planting a new sapling. It will take decades for the same result. [Update - I've since been informed by a resident that the Gum tree is around 11-12 years old]
  • It doesn’t matter if it’s in a small park in a cul de sac or a large park, public trees are the property of all residents of the city, and in my view the Councillors are entrusted with preserving our natural heritage.
  • No expert evidence was ever provided to show a flaw in the report or high risk to residents. Do residents have to sign petitions and hold protests on every decision to demonstrate that we don’t support it?
  • We live in a world with risks, we can’t cut down all the trees and wrap ourselves in cotton wool.

Finally, to add insult to injury it became clear during the debate that the local residents had not viewed the Flame tree as a risk and a majority of Councillors accepted it could remain. However, they were unwilling to vote to rescind the motion and no other avenue was available to modify the previous decision to save it. Again, I think this highlights a flaw in the decision making process.

The sad part is, this never should have got to this stage. The first decision by council should have been an opportunity for staff and Councillors to explain to local residents that the tree was safe and the numerous benefits they provide to our community, which I outline below.

I encourage everyone to go immediately and view these trees in Claymore Close (behind the Woodbridge tavern) before they are removed. Feel free to tie a ribbon or leave a memento to commemorate this senseless destruction.

I also encourage you to contact the Midland/Guildford ward councillors and let them know what you think about this decision. You might like to CC the Mayor (who also voted for the chop), Deputy Mayor and CEO, details below or find your local Councillor here.

Cr Daniel Parasiliti: daniel.parasiliti@swan.wa.gov.au, 0403 241 821

Cr Sandra Gregorini: sgregorini@globaldial.com, 9294 1827

Cr Mark Elliott: mark_d_elliott@live.com, 0458 660 804

Mayor Charlie Zaninno: charlie.zannino@swan.wa.gov.au, 9267 9104

Deputy Mayor Mick Wainwright: mick.wainwright@swan.wa.gov.au, 9377 7845

CEO Mike Foley: mike.foley@swan.wa.gov.au

 

My deputation:

Good evening Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Councillors and staff.

I’d like to address the issue of the trees in Claymore Close, but also the broader benefits of well-established trees to the city and community.

Let me make it clear that I and the committee of Transition Town Guildford do not support the removal of these trees. They are young, healthy, in the middle of a public park, and do not overhang any property.

One of the key issues raised is risk. We must acknowledge that there are inherent risks in every part of our lives, and that we cannot control everything in our environment. In this case, we should listen to the experts, the Arborists report, as the council did originally. It clearly states there is low risk. To argue otherwise must be demonstrated and supported by evidence, not emotions.

But also to realise that every tree has risks. The Jacaranda trees already present and proposed as replacements drop copious amounts of flowers, which attract bees. You may be familiar, as I was as a child, the often occurrence of stepping on a bee in bare feet under a Jacaranda. So does the risk of bee stings and anaphylaxis require that we remove the Jacaranda’s as well? Removing these trees when there is low risk sets a dangerous precedent.

As an example, down south next to the medical centre where my father holds a clinic there was a massive native Christmas tree (Nutysia Floribunda). You will be familiar with the glorious bright yellow masses of flowers this parasitic plant produces around Christmas time. This was the largest specimen I’ve ever seen, most likely over 100 years old. It was located in front of a day care centre, which for years had operated without incident. However, the day care centre was then bought by ABC learning, which required that the tree be removed, in case a child was stung and died from a reaction. Even though located next door to a medical centre, the tree was removed. But < 6 months later, ABC went bust, the child care centre changed hands again, minus the glorious and unique tree.

My point is, Council has a responsibility to protect trees as a public good. Businesses and residents change hands, and people come and go, but these trees, with care, will be there long after all of us. Of course residents of a street should have input to their surrounds. But the council must weigh this against the protection of trees for the community as a whole, for future residents and future generations, along with the numerous benefits trees provide, which I’ll now briefly mention.

Trees are vital for alleviating ‘the urban heat island effect’. We know that heat waves are the biggest natural killer in Australia. For example, twice as many people were killed in the heat wave before the tragic Victorian Black Saturday bush fires as were killed in the fires themselves.

Studies have shown that suburbs with trees are 4-6 C degrees cooler than non-treed suburbs – thanks to shade and transpiration. And the bigger the tree the greater the benefit. Removing these trees in their prime will mean > 20 years before a similar benefit is received by any replacement. With increasing climate change and extreme heat waves, having leafy suburbs will literally make the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable.

This is exactly why the City of Vincent has set a target to double the amount of shade from trees by 2050, and will spend $200 000 on it this year alone!

There are also numerous benefits financially. Shade from trees prolongs the life of bitumen by protecting it from harsh summer conditions. And a study by the University of Western Australia last year found that properties on tree lined streets were worth an extra $16 000.

And of course trees provide a myriad of other benefits, including cleaning air pollution, storm flood mitigation, and for native trees in particular, like this Eucalypt, provide habitat for birds and biodiversity. Trees even provide benefits for mental health, with numerous studies showing positive effects on productivity, recovery and well-being when people see vegetation.

Finally, I’d like to correct comments made about Transition Town Guildford during the debate last meeting on this issue. It was flattering to hear that Guildford residents are the most politically active, however, this doesn’t mean we pore over Council Agenda’s and Minutes as claimed. We probably should. But we’re busy people, doing stuff in our community, and with commitments that often clash with council meetings. It’s false logic to assert that just because we aren’t vocal and loud on an issue, we approve. Lack of opposition is not evidence of support.

In conclusion, I hope that you will support Cr Bailey’s motion later in the meeting and preserve these trees. I hope that the original decision, based on sound expert evidence will prevail.

Thank you.

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8 responses to “The saga of the Illawarra flame tree and the old Rose Gum

  1. I was at the meeting and was amazed by the fact that if a councillor made a comment rebutting a comment made by an expert it was accepted as the truth.
    There seemed some very self serving councillors in attendance who are clearly looking at political careers rather than serving the community.The decision making appeared based on anecdotal evidence and the need to get one over on the last speaker.
    I was bemused ( and I work in the Court system so am used to legalese and archaic process) by the amateurish behaviour within the council chamber.
    I am not motivated by the tree issue but in the fact that Guildford appears to be be viewed as a town full of political busybodies by those who claim to serve its residents.
    I suggest more residents attend these meetings.
    Hats off to councillor Bailey whose arguments were logical and balanced and seemed the only sensible councillor in attendance.

  2. Peter Langlands

    I rode past yesterday, we always take this street as it’s nice and quiet, and spoke to residents of two houses on the adjoining street (Chestnut street) who were out in their yards. Neither of them had any idea about the council decisions and opposed the removal of the trees!

  3. Good on you Pete. Thanks for the effort to write such a clear account of the saga. Will hopefully be there tomorrow. Bloody outrage.

  4. Peter thanks for stopping by today, your account of the events is a good read. At the end of the day elected members are required to represent the interests of their constituents and failing to do would see them in breach of the Local Government Act. Having said that there is no doubt ion my mind that Cr Parasiliti is playing baby politics and from what I know of him he would see this as an opportunity to gain a following of 11. I personally have an interest in any decision to remove mature trees from public open space and especially if the decision contradicted Councils own adopted tree management policy ( I have yet to review the policy in detail). Guildford is renown for its large mature trees which contribute significantly to the liveability of the area. The urban forest is at risk if a group of 11 can persuade Council to remove two trees because they are messy, sorry I forgot to throw in potentially unsafe which is how messy trees are often dealt with. It is very interesting (but very thankfully so) that the post mature sugar gums growing along James Street are intensely managed due to the threat they pose to the many potential targets on a daily basis including thousands of vehicles and hundreds of pedestrians and two trees assessed by an expert arborist as ””safe”” growing in a back water park with no potential targets must be removed. It may be interesting to know who knows who in that back water. If Council gets away with this blatant abuse of position then no tree in Guildford can be considered safe. Everyone who enjoys one or more of the many benefits delivered by trees should take an interest in this situation. Clearing a forest starts with the first tree removed, tree preservation should be at the forefront of out thinking in 2014.

    Public open space is typically crown land managed by the local authority through vesting orders issued by the state and as such the trees would be considered community assets. People living directly adjacent to a tree have no more right or claim over that tree than does someone who lives a distance away. I am sure that those councillors voting in favour of removing the trees are very aware that the community outside of the 11 would not support this action, hence the decision not to advise the community of their decision.

    My stance is primarily driven by a lack of transparent process that would instil a level of confidence that the locality of Guildford is being managed well.

    Rose Gum (Eucalyptus grandis) is an eastern states native with the potential to grow to a height of 50+ metres . Like all smooth barked Euc’s the species has the ability to self prune to manage water loss (reduce transpiration rate on hot days) and to balance its canopy in strong wind events. It is a common species through out metropolitan Perth and there are many examples throughout the City of Swan, are all Eucalyptus grandis being removed or just this one? Someone would need to explain to me how the Illawarra Flame (Brachychiton acerifolia) poses a safety threat. Flame trees have small lateral branches radiating from a fibrous trunk. They do not drop limbs, they do not fall over. Correct me if I am wrong but isn’t this species planted as a street tree in the median island opposite the jail and court house? I guess they will all have to be removed considering the number of cars threatened by their existence on a daily basis. My point is that these two trees are being earmarked for removal because they produce tree litter which is threatening the sanity of 11 people who live close by and I would venture to say that some of those 11 people signed the petition because it is difficult not to support neighbours. I don’t suppose the family pets signed the petition?

    Peter I will contact Councillors tomorrow RE: their decision, will locate and review the tree management policy and listen out for chainsaws. Keep the smile MC

  5. DR Jacquie Kelly

    I went to see the tree today. So rediculous that the council would allow this tree to be removed. It will make the area look like a scene from “Neighbours”. The tree is so magnificent. Why are people so ignorant and Councillors so shallow. SHAME.

  6. What’s apparent on drive-by is that there’s a car parking area under the larger tree. Quite obvious what those few people are concerned about – precious cars that I’m sure can’t possibly be moved. Better move the tree.

  7. The problem with local governments is that councillors often make arbitrary decisions and do not engage the broader community on important policy matters such as tree removals/replacements and the spraying of herbicides on footpaths and parks. In some cases they will ignore thousands of signatories to petitions ( as has happened in the City of Stirling) and in some cases they will simply do what is requested by a relatively small number of residents. What is often lacking is accountability for the decisions that they make . We need strong state laws that protect our local amenity, public health and the natural environment so that we are not at the mercy of individual councillors who make random and unsubstantiated decisions.

    • Well said Alex, I think it is now imperative for residents of Guildford (but lets not restrict it to Guildford) to make it abundantly clear to the current Council that it is not ok to remove any tree without justifiable reason (a mechanically damaged tree split in half and starting to fall) and certainly not by stealth. I am worried about the trees growing in the median islands along James and East Streets which have been brutalised by the current upgrade works. Check out the roots of the tree near the candle shop, I hope we don’t get any high winds for another 10 years while the trees root system re-establishes itself. Keep the smile MC

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