Historic trees could have been saved

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Opinion/Analysis by Carol Altmann

[dropcap style=”font-size: 35px; color: #8cc7d0;”] D [/dropcap]o you remember the two giant Norfolk pines that were cut down at the Warrnambool Police Station late last year?

I do, because I couldn’t believe the Warrnambool City Council didn’t try harder to save them – but, as I have since learned, they actually ignored their own advice to let the chainsaws in.

Here is a photo of what we are talking about, taken after the limbs were cut off in preparation for their full removal last August:

The two mature Norfolk pines being prepared for removal in August 2016.

These weren’t just any old trees.

The pair had historical links to the beautiful Church of England property next door (built in 1855) and were considered so important by the council that they were specifically mentioned in the planning permit issued in 1996 for the new Warrnambool Police Station in Koroit St.

In particular, the trees were not to be “removed, destroyed or lopped” without written consent from the council.

The new station opened in 1999 but, it appears, had immediate problems with drainage and flooding which to me says more about a poor build in the first place rather than the position of the two trees.

In 2005, a member of Victoria Police – I don’t know who, because names have been redacted from the Freedom of Information documents I received from the council – sent the council an email, saying the pine trees were continuing to cause water damage to the new building and needed to go.

“All advice we have and our own observations tell us that out problems will continue whilst the trees remain in place. I seek approval to remove both of them forthwith,” he/she wrote.

Two weeks later in November 2005, a council officer wrote a detailed response on behalf of the council’s Built Environment Committee.

The most important paragraph of that letter is this:

“…the trees have a positive contribution to the streetscape, have demonstrated historical links with the church property next door, clearly the intention of the endorsed plans is to retain the trees and therefore the removal of the trees should only be considered as a last resort.” (my emphasis)

Crucially, the council also recommended the police obtain a Structural Engineer’s report on what could be done to either the building (eg. adding more gutters) or to the trees (eg. root barriers) to fix the problem.

The council even offered the police a free arborist service and access to its Heritage Advisor.

But neither happened. In fact, nothing happened.

Fast forward five years to 2010 and the police wrote to the council again and – again – asked how it could get rid of the trees.

This time, however, there was no detailed response, but a six-line letter from a different council officer to that who responded in 2005.

And this time, the historic trees were suddenly considered dispensable because they might – might – cause problems.

“Given the retention of the trees is likely to be problematic, Council does not object to their removal,” he/she wrote. (My emphasis).

It is hard to get a sense of the size of the remaining tree stumps, but you could stand on them and stretch out your arms and your fingertips. I hope that helps.

I am not sure when a written permit expires, but it took a further six years before it was used to cut down two Norfolk pines that were apparently causing so much trouble.

No wonder so many people were shocked – at no time has there been any public information or discussion about the trees, despite their significance.

Instead, a six-year-old permit, issued behind closed doors and by a different group of councillors (if they knew about it at all), was enough.

I have tried to talk to the police about why they removed the trees now, more than 10 years after they were considered a dire problem. They didn’t respond.

As such, I am unable to confirm one story doing the rounds that the space will be used for extra car parking.

Surely not.

Now some of you will be shrugging your shoulders and saying, oh, they were just trees, but to me this sequence of events reveals so much about the weakness of our planning laws, the way decisions are made in private and then how they are pitched to the public.

As custodians of our natural and built heritage, we can surely do better than this.

[box]You can see all of the Freedom of Information documents relating to this story here and here.[/box]

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5 thoughts on “Historic trees could have been saved”

  1. Sorry to say/think that we can’t do better than this. Reading the works of Franz Kafka can help to relieve the symptoms of Local Councilitis. They are the same everywhere.
    Excellent TV series ‘Arcadia Waters’ put a droll spin on local councils, probably on DVD by now. It was inspired by documentary ‘Rats In The Ranks’ which was also brilliantly Kafkaesque.
    Police said in 2012 “oh we got permission to do it”. Name and shame whomever gave this permission, and also the structural engineers of the new copshop project who should have easily seen before the underground carpark was dug near the seashore, the “soft earth” that they claim meant the trees were unstable.
    However, blame is pointless, two historic trees which created the charm of Warrnambool’s skyline, are gone. Because of dunces. A Confederacy Of Dunces [that’s another author altogether but also recommended].

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I have read ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ but it might be time for a re-read.

  2. My brother lives directly opposite in Koroit Street and to say that they mourn their loss would be a gross understatement. Their view now consists of rusting rooftops. That’s progress I guess.

  3. I would like to see all/most of Warrnambool’s Norfolk Island Pines go over time as they age and become decrepit. They are sometimes described as iconic yet they are common in seaside towns throughout south eastern and western Australia. They certainly do not make Warrnambool unique in any way at all. They provide almost zero habitat for native insects, birds or animals. Any house on the south side of one of these monsters has its winter sun completely blocked off. They are not native to Warrnambool and do nothing to support our local biodiversity which, by the way, is struggling in our largely cleared landscapes. There are beautiful native trees that could replace these useless giants that would let the sun back in to people’s homes and provide habitat for native birds. That is the story I would like to read about.

    1. All good points, Bruce! (Although I love Norfolk Pines – maybe because I don’t have to sweep the fallen fronds…) This piece, however, is as much about how planning permits are managed and altered, and the entire process not being revealed unless you are patient enough to wait for the results of a Freedom of Information application that is then redacted in part. This concerns me greatly. Thanks for joining the conversation!

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