Two trees to go

THE divisiveness over the controversial push to remove six trees in Naracoorte's main CBD area continued right down to the final vote on the issue on Tuesday night.

Faced with a motion to remove two of the six lagunaria patersonii trees because of their poor health but retain the other four, councillors were split down the middle with a 4-4 vote.

Mayor Erika Vickery had the casting vote and had no hesitation in voting in favour of the motion to break the deadlock.

That means the two lagunaria patersonii trees in a stand of six on the northern side of Smith St that are in poor health will be removed and replaced, while the other four will be retained but pruned to below the height of the neighbouring two-storey buildings.

The community and the council have been split on the issue throughout, after business owners in the area near the trees renewed their efforts to have them removed.

They complained that the trees caused health problems because of the fibres in their pods, clogged their gutters and marred the visual appeal of their businesses.

The issue has gone to public consultation twice - in 2009 and 2013 - and twice there has been a groundswell of support to keep the trees. (However, an online poll conducted by the Herald resulted in nearly 90 per cent of respondents voting to remove the trees).

The 4-4 vote at Tuesday's meeting was identical to the 4-4 deadlock at the council's December meeting, when Cr John Flynn moved a motion to ask the council's botanical working group to prepare a strategic replacement program for trees in Naracoorte's CBD and make a list of significant trees in the town.

On that occasion, Mrs Vickery also lodged her casting vote in favour.

(Cr Brett Armfield did not vote in either case, having declared a conflict of interest as a neighbouring business owner).

Having considered the issue after it was referred from the council, the botanical working group made a series of recommendations to the council's strategic asset management committee, which caused further division when members were tied 3-3 in voting on them.

However, those recommendations were taken to this week's council meeting, resulting in the tied 4-4 vote and resultant casting vote in favour.

The recommendations were:

- The second and fifth lagunaria trees in Smith St be removed on account of their poor health and replaced with the same Hawthorn species and cultivar as planted east of the town hall. 

- The remaining lagunarias are pruned by an arborist to be clear of the buildings and below the height of the gutter line of adjacent two storey buildings.

- The funding for such works to be considered as a discreet item in the budget considerations for 2014-15.

- Any pruning be carried out at the optimum time for the health and survival of the remaining trees.

- At peak times of leaf and flower shedding council increases the frequency of footpath sweeping to remove the litter.

There was considerable debate before the vote, with councillors speaking for and against the recommendations.

Cr Damien Ross said he would have liked more specific information about some aspects of the recommendation before voting. But generally he felt heavy pruning to below the height of the buildings, combined with removing and replacing two of the six trees, would "look pretty ordinary", and he was tending to favour removing all the trees.

Cr Ken Schultz said it was previously recommended by an arborist that the trees should be removed rather than pruned, as they would grow back more vigorously, and he "can't see any reason to keep them".

Cr Ken Banning said the same arborist had rated the trees all of poor to average health, they had huge root systems which could impact on services below the ground, and action was needed.

"It's either all or nothing - we either do nothing or we take the lot," he said.

Cr Craig McGuire felt the community was quite clear in its thinking and the council should take that into account.

"This has been to public consultation twice," he said. "Both times there's been a vast majority in favour of keeping the trees.

"Why have it if you're not going to listen? Why have it if it comes down to personal opinion?"

Cr John Flynn closed the debate by saying he was "rather staggered by some of the responses of councillors".

Cr Flynn said the overriding factor for him was that the council had only introduced a tree policy last year - "which we all voted in" - of which a key point was that trees should only be removed if they were dangerous or dead.

He said councillors couldn't accept a policy, but then revert to "gut feeling" and "kneejerk reaction" in individual cases.

Cr Flynn added that he had done a considerable amount of research on street trees including lagunaria patersonii and had found that they were among those with the lowest health risks, despite claims from their opponents that they caused allergies and asthma.

He said as evergreen, hardwood trees which didn't drop limbs, if they didn't have fibres in their pods, they would be "almost considered the ultimate street tree".

They also had historical value, and "removing them would upset an enormous number of people in this town who believe they're important."

The project to remove and replace the two dead trees and prune the other four will be discussed as part of 2014-15 budget deliberations.

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