*This story was updated at 10:08 a.m. on Wednesday, June 22.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition says it has collected more than 10,000 petition signatures to save a majestic Sequoia tree from a property developer who, according to the project manager, has no intention of cutting it down.
The tree stands two blocks west of city hall, near the southwest corner of 133 Street and 104 Avenue in Whalley. An arborist figures it is about 120 years old.
The SSC launched a campaign on its Facebook page, featuring videos of McCallum and Coun. Doug Elford asking viewers to click on a link if they support saving the tree, requiring their full name, email address and phone number.
On Monday, June 20, the SSC issued a statement from McCallum in which the mayor says, “I have heard the public loud and clear and when this proposal appears before council, I will ensure that this development proposal will not move forward unless the developer guarantees that this majestic redwood tree will be saved.”
McCallum notes in the press release that since 2013 “contentious public debate has ensued” concerning the tree, “which has been slated to be torn down by a developer for a development proposal.”
The developer, ML Emporio Properties Ltd., intends to build a 36-storey residential tower on site. Project Manager Moe Dhillon, of Brasfield Builders Ltd., told the Now-Leader that the Sequoia will be incorporated into the project, which is aptly called “Sequoia.”
“We’re not chopping that tree.”
In fact, Oskar Winnat, the development manager, said the tree is being given to the City of Surrey “as a park, to extend the park that is already there.
“So we are working with our arborist to provide ample room around it to make the tree viable for many years, generations down the line. This is the first I’ve heard of this.”
“All I can comment is the tree will be kept, the project will be called the Sequoia in sort-of respect of the tree,” he said, adding there “never, never” was any talk of removing the tree.
But Inderjot Gill, owner of ML Emporio Properties Ltd., told the Now-Leader on Wednesday that some of his employees weren’t involved in, and may not have been apprised of, a conversation his upper management had with city hall and the mayor concerning an original proposal to remove the tree. Resulting from that conversation, Gill said, “We reconfigured that whole site to retain the tree now.
“So now we’re developing around the tree so the tree is now being protected,” he said. “We want to get the tree removed but the City of Surrey is pushing us not to remove the tree so now we have no choice but to retain the tree.”
The project is expected to be before the city’s Advisory Design Panel on June 30.
“I spoke to the mayor himself because I’m the director of development, the owner of ML Emporio Properties and our workers, development managers, our project managers never had this meeting with upper management along with city hall officials, that was us. So they weren’t aware of the whole process,” Gill told the Now.
“My team wasn’t aware of this.”
Gill also advised, in an emailed statement Wednesday, that he “helped procure and manage the development of this project right from inception. During the early design stages of the project it was my team’s intent to remove the sequioa tree which would have made the underground parkade efficient and cost-effective. As talks progressed with the city staff, it was made absolutely clear by Mayor Doug McCallum that this project will not get his support if the sequioa tree was to be potentially removed. We had to rehash our design through several iterations and ensure the tree was protected and preserved per the mayors vision for city of Surrey. It cost us approximately $3M to save this tree.”
McCallum said he spoke with the company’s owner four or five months ago, before the land was bought, and told him Surrey wants the tree – which McCallum can see from his office window – protected.
“It’s a beautiful tree,” McCallum said. “I wanted that tree protected and I actually in this case was fairly forceful with him and said we won’t approve your project unless you save the tree. So he at the time was very co-operative – this is actually before he bought the land or just as he was buying it, or whatever he did getting the land and starting to look at building it. So back then I said, you know, it’s dear to me, it’s a tree that I just really feel we need in our city centre and so he agreed. He agreed that once he brought his project through they would save the tree.”
Coun. Jack Hundial, of Surrey Connect, dismissed the SSC’s tree-saving campaign as “electioneering” and “data mining” to later hit up respondents for their vote in the Oct. 15 civic election.
“It’s completely data mining for the election, that’s all it is.”
Elford took umbrage with that.
“Who would be suggesting that? People who are running against us? I guess he’s entitled to an opinion, I don’t know if he has a point or not.”
McCallum said the petition had nothing to do with data mining.
“With the petition, we wanted to be sure the public also supports us. It is a great tree and it will be a real symbol in our city centre.”
Deb Jack, of Surrey Environmental Partners, regularly appears before council to advocate for trees that are slated to be felled to make way for development.
She noted there was a “great hue and cry” in the community many years ago concerning the tree’s fate related to an application to the city in 2010 submitted by a different developer, before a different council, to build a multi-family mid-rise there.
In Jack’s opinion, this council’s record on tree preservation has been “poor.”
“There are all sorts of development applications are approved where there’s a huge number of trees that come down,” she said. “We’re not unrealistic and expect all trees to be saved. We do not have in Surrey a policy of saving trees that relate to the size.”
Jack finds irony in the SSC’s signature-collecting campaign and wonders who the petition will be submitted to, considering it’s the SSC majority on council that makes the decisions.