Home and Garden Show Feature: Changes needed in landscaping practices to protect buyers/owners of new developments

With the BC Home and Garden Show 2013 in full swing at BC Place Stadium (February 20 – 24, 2013), now is a good time to talk about changes needed in Vancouver and perhaps other Metro Vancouver municipalities in the way landscaping is done in new developments. The article below shows how the current systems keep costs for developers down and promote quick real estate sales. This boosts developer profits but ends up costing owners in the long run. And in a sense this makes housing more expensive. The following article was contributed to CityHallWatch by an expert in the industry who prefers to remain anonymous. We cross-post it to MetroVanWatch for the regional audience as similar issues probably apply everywhere. 

Photos: A magnolia tree planted by developer very close to house on left. Space between these two houses is completely unsuitable for this species, which will “try” to grow at least 50% larger than it is. Closeups show tree growing into house on right. Other photos show yellow cedar beside a commercial building.

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CHANGES NEEDED IN LANDSCAPING PRACTICES IN NEW DEVELOPMENTS: A CityHallWatch Exclusive Story

Whether the site is a large condo complex, a small or large townhouse development or even detached single family homes,  conflicts commonly arise between the newly planted trees and the urban infrastructure.

Importantly, the problems generally do not become apparent until many years after the homes are completed and sold, since most problems relate to the enlarged size of the trees.

At the time of planting – and time of property purchase from the builder – the newly treed landscape will often look aesthetically attractive, and can remain so for years. However, the problems of planting inappropriate species and/or planting trees in the wrong location will eventually develop and become clear.

Problems from species selection, location of planting

The most common conflict is that a tree is simply too close to the building so that either its roots or stem and branches grow up against the home. This can result in damage to both the tree and the building. Roots are often less problematic than people tend to think, but they certainly can cause damage to foundations and drainage systems if the planting location for the tree is inappropriate. If the tree is planted so that its stem and/or branches encroach on the adjacent building, it will not only block most light to any windows, but will also potentially cause damage during windy weather as the branches and possibly even the stem are blown against the building. The tree itself can also incur significant damage.

To avoid these issues, any trees planned for planting in the new landscape should be selected, apart from any other desirable characteristics, in consideration for their growth form and size at maturity. While a tree can certainly be pruned away from buildings etc., this is only feasible to a point as severely limiting a tree’s growing space requirements will not work — a tree will always ‘try’ to grow to the full size that it is genetically predisposed to obtain. So greatly reducing the required growing space will preclude pruning as a viable option as the tree will require too much crown removal and/or continuous pruning (every year) that results in poor, dense, and very unattractive form.

Developers select incorrect species, problems appear years later

In small yards and other landscapes that trees may be planted, it is therefore of primary importance to select the correct species. For these locations, many species of trees will not be appropriate to plant anywhere since their form and/or size as they mature will simply require much more space than is available. This is the heart of the problem that is so common in both historical developments (10, 20, 30 or more years ago) and persists frequently today. This issue is not confined to Vancouver, but is found in the adjacent areas like Richmond Delta and Surrey, and could happen anywhere.

It is perplexing that this issue has not been addressed given the costly impact to owners and the very well demonstrated nature of the issue. Each city can be expected to be well aware of the problems, since they typically require that any tree removal be requested through a permit process that requires acceptable rationale – such as the need to remove an inappropriately large tree growing too close to the building!

Municipal review and permit processes enable these problems, must change to find solutions

‘Tree selection at the project development stage should essentially eliminate the issue, but in reality it is where all these future problems originate. Well-defined processes are in place where municipalities require developers to hire a landscape architect who will create a landscape design that includes what species of trees will be planted and where they will be planted. This design is reviewed by, and must be approved by city staff, before building permits are given. One may therefore wonder how this problem is allowed to go on.

[CityHallWatch note: In Vancouver, B.C., the Urban Design Panel — an advisory panel that includes a landscape architect  — reviews plans that include the landscaping plan then votes to support or not support it. The landscaping plan is a necessary part of every application. The UDP should review its practices and standards in light of the issues raised in this article.]

More examples of costly problems from inappropriate landscaping choices

Other issues also arise if an inappropriate species or planting location is selected. For example, trees planted in garden beds located over underground garages could create costly structural or building envelope problems when the eventual weight of a mature tree gets too heavy. Or root systems can break through water barriers, causing leaking into the building. Or sometimes there is simply insufficient soil volume for the  species of tree planted in a garden bed or container.

Conclusion: Buyers need to be aware of potential issues when buying, and citizens as a whole need to call for changes in regulation, guidelines, and practices

Properly addressing tree species and planting site selection would avoid extensive, unnecessary tree removals and replacements and help meet rather than run counter to the city’s own objective of maintaining or even enhancing the presence of mature urban trees.

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Concluding comments by CityHallWatch

CityHallWatch recommends the following actions:

  1. Write to your mayor and council and encourage a review of landscaping practices and guidelines for new developments.
  2. Ensure that your municipality’s “Urban Design Panel” (or related body) does its job right by ensuring landscaping in new developments is designed for the long term benefit of the owner, not just the quick profits of the developer
  3. Before you buy a property, review the factors mentioned above, and get an independent opinion from another landscaper (or arborist / landscape architect / horticulturist) about the plant species selection and placement of trees, etc.
  4. If you are an owner of a building (strata condo, etc.) have a look at your own property with the points of this article in mind. Be prepared to spend money to rectify problems years before they become more serious and costly.

Some take-away points and further discussion …

  • Developers typically select plants for new developments that are inappropriate if one considers the long term interests of future owners. The plant selection may be designed to make the property look good in order to sell it. But over time, as the trees and shrubs grow, they become too wide, too large, create too much shade, threaten to invade building envelopes, and so on. The results can be very expensive for property owners to maintain and rectify.
  • The problems often don’t become apparent for a decade or two or three.
  • The Metro Vancouver region has many problems with housing affordability. Reducing the long-term cost of maintaining properties will help in the long term to cut a share of housing costs. The actions proposed in this article can help cut long-term costs. Municipalities should support that.
  • Landscape architects sit on advisory bodies (e.g. Urban Design Panel in Vancouver), and could influence the process for the long term interests of owners — but typically support the developers who wish to sell the property quickly. To solve the problems, all involved need to be aware of the issues, ask the right questions, and be aware of the right types of plants to plant. The UDP in Vancouver is too restrictive and only allows for BCSLA (Landscape Architects governing body) approved members to sit on panel. There are many other qualified individuals for the panel to chose from that might better act in the interests of owners (academics and others not in the association but with landscape architecture degrees, horticulturists, arborists, and others actively working in the landscape profession)
  • Developers must submit landscaping plans and have them approved before getting permits, so these permit processes provide some public oversight into landscape design — potentially.
  • Municipalities have the opportunity to influence these issues. They need to have the facts, and should balance the different interests of the players involved — short-term profits of developers seeking quick property sales, the long term interests of property owners and investors, and the interests of professional who influence the processes, etc.
  • Current and prospective owners would benefit by having the issues laid out clearly and concisely for them.
  • Consideration for native tree species should be given, as well as factors such as soil pH.
  • Sometimes the species is determined by selecting from the overstock of nurseries using price point as the main criterion in choosing one tree over another.
  • The location of underground utilities and overhead hydro wires are obvious, but sometimes overlooked, constraints that will create problems as a tree matures.
  • Again, for emphasis, we encourage citizens to write to your municipalities’ elected officials alerting them to the issues.
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