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Police intervene in bylaw battle over cutting dead ash trees
June 19, 2015
By Matthew Van Dongen

Hamilton's ash-killing beetle invasion is now spurring neighbour disputes, bylaw clashes and even police intervention.

Ray and Sandra Wood were shocked last July when the city ordered their dying backyard ash cut down - an estimated $10,000-plus for all nine trees infested by the emerald ash borer - because a neighbour complained about the danger of falling branches.

That order - one of 10 issued last year - was still hanging over the Winona couple last week when a tree services company removed a gate lock and entered the backyard to start cutting on the city's say-so, but without the knowledge of the owners.

An outraged Sandra Wood barred Kodiak Tree Service workers from re-entering the property the next day, spurring a visit by Hamilton police, who defused the confrontation by asking the tree-cutters to come back another day.

"We were pretty upset," said her husband, Ray, who agreed to let workers finish removing the last of the denuded 50-foot-tall ash trees Friday with the help of a crane. Wood said he was resigned to the forced removal, but labelled the earlier city-sanctioned entry to his property a "bully move."

"I'm sure (the city) wanted us to get it done earlier, but guess what? I don't exactly have that kind of money to throw around in a hurry," he said, adding the couple had trouble finding contractors available on the city's timeline.

Sending in a contractor under the property standards bylaw is always the last resort, said municipal enforcement manager Kim Coombs. The city repeatedly extended the order deadline from September 2014 through to this spring, at least once at the request of ward Coun. Brenda Johnson.

Coombs said the owners were warned in May a contractor would be out to do the work as soon as possible. A Kodiak representative, Kyle Post, confirmed the company was told to do the work as soon as scheduling and weather permitted, rather than a specific date.

"We did try to accommodate (the owners) in recognition of that hardship," Coombs said. "But in the end, it's a safety issue ... If there is noncompliance, we have the legal right to enter that property and deal with that safety issue."

The bylaw department is bracing for more beetle battles as hundreds of thousands of ash trees across the city succumb to the unstoppable insect.

The city is spending $25 million to axe 23,000 ash trees on streets and in parks over 10 years to ensure they don't fall on people or property. For homeowners, removing a mature ash tree can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000, depending on tree size, location and whether pricey equipment like a crane is needed.

The city usually only issues orders related to private trees based on complaints, Coombs said. Last year, only 10 orders were related to dead ash trees. But halfway through this year, residents have already filed more than 100 complaints related to dead trees.

Wood agrees his trees were dying fast, but questioned whether they were an immediate danger. He wondered aloud if he had come out on the losing end of a neighbour dispute.

The complainant, Larry Dietz, agreed there is no love lost between the neighbours - but he added the safety of his grandkids was his "only concern." Dietz argued he proved that by spending $4,000 to cut down three of his own ash trees - on the advice of the same bylaw officer who inspected the Wood's property.

"I've got a four-year-old and a six-year-old running around here," he said, adding he doesn't have a problem with the city enforcing the bylaw on private property. "If it's a matter of safety, somebody should have that right."