City of Surrey, B.C., shocks residents with $3,000 fine for over-pruning trees
Article updated November 08, 2021 - Original article incorrectly stated "pay $129 for a tree planting permit". It's actually a $129.99 permit to "remove" the tree, in addition to the other costs the homeowners are facing in order to avoid paying the $3,000 fine.
Beware when pruning your trees, especially if you live in Surrey, B.C.
Two shocked Surrey residents contacted McLaughlin on Your Side after each of them got a $3,000 fine for "excessively pruning" a tree in their front yard.
"It's been pared back so people don't have to duck," said Surrey resident Shawn McMullin.
McMullin and his neighbour Amy Neiszner live in a quiet neighbourhood and for the last 14 years, they say they have kept their yards groomed and their trees trimmed.
"Some of them are overwhelming," said Neiszner, commenting on the trees that Surrey allowed the developer to plant on their postage-stamp-sized front lots.
McMullin's magnolia tree had overgrown so much he says it destroyed his gutters and he had to replace them at a cost of more than $2,000.
"They tend to grow very wild," he said, "Every year we've owned the home now we've trimmed it back and it grows back and is healthy and full of flowers."
Except this past May, someone complained and the two residents each got a surprise in the mail. The City of Surrey had issued each of them a penalty of $3,000, ordering them to pay up or cut the trees down and replace them at their own cost.
"We were flabbergasted," said Neiszner.
"I thought somebody was playing a joke on me to be honest," added McMullin.
It was no joke, but he thinks the appeal process was. McMullin sent an email to the city asking to speak to someone about the penalty. Instead, he got a reply stating that his appeal was denied, appearing to be from the same department that had issued the fine.
Neiszner and McMullin were given a choice: They could pay the large fine, or they could remove their trees, pay $129.99 for a tree removal permit and pay a $550 deposit that would be refunded after a new tree was planted and inspected twice.
"The city has threatened to apply it to our property taxes if we don't settle the debt," said McMullin.
The City of Surrey refused to do an on-camera interview to talk with CTV News about the fines. However, in an email, it said it did not give the residents a warning first because the two trees had been over pruned, with too many branches removed, including the upper 50 per cent of the total height of the tree. The city says the trees could weaken and die.
The city did not offer any proof and refused to pay the residents a second visit, saying it had enough information and did not offer any other alternatives to fight the penalties, other than the "appeal" process it says it had conducted. In addition, McMullin and Neiszner say no one at the city, from administration to the mayor's office, took the time to fully explain its decision to them.
"If we pay the $3,000 fine, which we're not going to, does that mean we keep the tree and if it doesn't die that you would give us $3,000 back? No answer," Neiszner stated.
"And I don't think this is fair or reasonable or serving the pubic interest to apply heavy fines like this to hard working citizens of Surrey," added McMullin.
Is the fine excessive? To put it into perspective, street racing and stunt driving fines could net you a $1,996 fine, and it's $1,000 for operating an unregistered suite in the City of Surrey.
In 2020, Surrey issued 271 Tree Protection bylaw offences – 85 of those were for over pruning or topping trees.
McMullin's neighbour has a similar magnolia tree that overhangs the sidewalk. We asked if that is what the city wants him to do.
"Well, potentially," he answered.
Who is right, who is wrong, and where can they turn?
"One thing that people can always do is come to us. We have jurisdiction over every local government in the province," said Jay Chalke, B.C. ombudsperson.
The B.C. ombudsperson gets about 8,000 complaints a year. It is estimated approximately 300 of them involve bylaw complaints -- either lack of enforcement or aggressive unfair enforcement.
Five years ago, the independent agency issued a bylaw enforcement guide and best practices for local governments. If citizens have a complaint, they can file it with the ombudsperson.
"We determine, in our best view, whether or not a government has treated somebody fairly," Chalke stated.
That is an option that McMullin and Neiszner will consider moving forward.
"We want the fine removed and an apology," said Neiszner.
There are other municipalities with tree protection bylaws. In Vancouver, the fines range from $500 to $10,000, including over pruning. However, unlike Surrey, it is up to the court to decide the final penalties for cases moved forward for prosecution, not the people who issue the fines.
Read through the email exchanges related to this article below.