Saturday, 29 April 2017

Cr Toni Wright-Turner re removal of Bellingen Camphor laurel trees

Pic from Bellingen Courier Sun
"It is indeed sad to be facing the loss of the old Camphors in Church Street which have given shade and character to our town these past decades. It is also sad to feel the division within our community this issue is causing.

The journey of becoming a new councillor has been one of significant learning, along the way having to come to terms with the responsibilities, constraints and opportunities of the position. In this process I have come to realise how easy it is to stand in the public arena and use incomplete information and half-truths to create an impression that something has happened or not happened in a particular way. It is also possible from the public arena to be 'single issue' and only see or address that part of an issue or situation which concerns or interests you personally. Now, 7 months in, we are tasked with the implementation of the Main Street Plan, and the ‘Camphor debate’ has become another example of half-truths and single issues.

This type of approach is a luxury which Councillors do not have - we are elected to consider of the complexities of an issue, to look at it critically from as many perspectives as possible and to make the best decision for the WHOLE community based on the understanding we have developed.

A common misconception in this debate is that the responsibility for the decision to remove the camphor’s rests with the currently elected council….that it is even a personal vendetta by our current mayor! The simple truth is that this process commenced in 2010, when the Council of the day (which included no current councillors) approved removal of five Camphor Laurel Trees in and around Church Street. This approval led to the removal of the first Camphor Laurel in 2011 during the upgrade to the northern end of Church Street. Contrary to the popular myth that the protest by a small number of people stopped the removal of further trees……actually, other trees were not removed at that time simply because there was no funding to do so.

The Council is constantly seeking relevant grant funding to increase the infrastructure and services we can provide in the Shire from our small rates base. Such grant funds enabled the extensive consultation with the community to develop the main street plan and again, it is a major grant of almost $800,000 from RMS, specifically for the implementation of this plan, that is enabling the work started in 2010, 2011 and 2015 to progress. This funding opportunity is time-limited and available only if a substantial body of work is undertaken in the 2016/17 financial year. The step taken by this Council, on Thursday 30th March, was the unanimous approval by all Councillors of the Main Street Plan, notably approval of Stages 1-4 and the implementation of Stages 1 & 2 as set out below:

ITEM: 4:1
1. Note that Council adopted the Main Street Masterplan in 2015
2. Endorse the engineering and landscape detailed design plans for Stages 1 to 4 of the Bellingen Town Centre Beautification (Bellingen Main Street Plan)
3. In conjunction with the NSW Roads and Maritime Services prepare a communication plan for the current funded construction stages
4. Receive a further report from the Working Party established to select replacement trees in Church Street

This meeting was advertised through usual channels and there were no public submissions to Council about the removal of the trees. After the meeting I spoke personally with the 2 people who had attended with the intention of speaking to the meeting on this matter. Unfortunately neither had notified Council of their intention, which is simply done by contacting Council the day before the meeting. I understand this has been standard procedure for a long time now so was doubly surprised that if this was a matter of genuine and widespread community concern no-one had found out how to present to Council. I know this knowledge is easily obtained and already widely known as in my 6 months on Council we have received public submissions on several matters already.

Interestingly, of the 2 people wanting to address council, only one was against the approval and implementation of the design plans (which involves the removal of the Camphor Laurels in Church St). This resident was offered the opportunity to present the petition he had brought to the meeting personally to the mayor at a later date. However, when this was done it became apparent that at least 1/3 of the 500 respondents were not residents of Bellingen Shire and that the information about the process and rationale for the removal of the trees offered to the people who signed the petition was very limited. I heard yesterday there are a further 800 signatures but I have not yet seen these. However, I can say that analysis of the petitions received as of today, more than half of the respondents were not from our Shire.

It is also noteworthy that the other resident who wanted to address Council did not oppose the removal but wanted to request that the replacement trees and other vegetation is done with suitable native plants.

Council has provided detailed information about the main street plan on the Council website and has also addressed many questions, concerns and misconceptions. Please go to to access this.

Included on the site is a short video made by Councillor Jennie Fenton highlighting the access issues of the area around the camphors in Church St. Since this was published in late March, I have received numerous comments regarding the Main Street plan from people who really appreciated this broader perspective, and who said it made it clear to them that in a choice between welcoming ALL people into our town centre or keeping the Camphors, they consider that people are the most important for our community. People who changed from wanting to keep the camphors to understanding why they need to be removed in Church St because this broader understanding of the issues made it clear it is not just about cutting the Camphors down for 'no good reason'. It is about creating an inclusive, beautiful, plant-filled town centre for our community, which values and welcomes all people of our community or who are visiting be they young, old, fit, frail or disabled.

I agree it is sad that this cannot be achieved while retaining the existing trees in Church Street. They provide a wonderful shade and atmosphere to that part of town. I have looked over the past months for possible options, including the extended platforms so often suggested as an obvious and achievable solution. However, if you actually try to design this beyond the thought-bubble, the ramp gradients needed to provide safe access up to the elevation required cannot be achieved within the area available. Similarly, investigation shows the ways to shave and contain the extensive roots of mature trees like these are absolutely torturous and more than likely to cause structural instability and a slow death in these Camphors. The ongoing costs of infra-structure repair to utilities and the foundations of heritage buildings that would be required to keep these tree is also not acceptable beyond a single-issue perspective, as it would be a huge, and increasing drain on limited Council resources into the future. In short, I could find none which could work in the real world. My research has also found that much more is known now about planting trees in urban settings so that they are healthy and their growth is sustainable into the future, than was known when these camphors were planted and I understand we are using as much of this knowledge as a small rural council can afford in our main street upgrade.

I have personally shared all this information with a number of the people who are concerned that the removal of the camphors is not based on sound decision making and that alternative options have not been considered, and am disappointed that the same myths and single-issue grand-standing as well as new half-truths and innuendos continue.

Please find clarification of some of the commonly discussed myths below, noting that some of these have been used as reasons to sign the petitions being circulated on this subject. 

• Council is spending 1 million dollars of rate payers money to remove the camphor trees
• That council can chose to use this money in other, better ways (e.g. fixing accessibility issues all over town rather than spending it on removing trees)
• Exorbitant cost of removal of trees - $80,000 per tree!! 

Actually, Council’s contribution to this stage of the Main Street Plan is around $160,000. The remaining approximately $740,000 is specific funding from RMS which can only be used to implement Stages 1-2 of the approved Main Street plan. This funding is also time limited so delays will risk the loss of funding and with it the opportunity to upgrade our town centre.

Further the cost of the removal of the Church St trees will be around $20,000

• The tree removed in 2011 was done without notifying the public and in a secretive manner so that the health of the tree could not be established

Actually the date of removal was well advertised in the Courier Sun, and while the tree was removed early in the day and taken away promptly to reduce disruption and safety issues, there is photographic evidence that the tree was diseased and this information has not been withheld from the public.

• Council has not consulted with the community about the main street plan or the need to replace some of the street trees.

• Council has not listened to the people

• Council hid the removal of the camphors from the public in the 2015 consultations

There were extensive consultations with the community in 2015 and the feedback from this was used to shape the main street plan. Details of the consultation are included in the information on the Council website. The decision to remove the camphors had already been made in 2010, the 2015 consultation focussed on the forward plan and so the camphors were not a key feature.

• If council wanted to save the trees they could shave, cut or otherwise remove the offending roots and then seal the roots from growing there again. After this the trees would be fine and there would be no more issues for the buildings as they could be fully repaired once the roots were removed. 

There are Councils like Kuringai committed to doing this for all problem trees and Bellingen Council should do the same. Ditto for the damage to Telstra and related service pits and wiring.

As noted above, this is simply not true. Techniques for root reduction, shaving etc. are generally effective for root control of younger trees but can only be used on mature trees like these for limited or minor root control. The recent reference to the Kuringai Council ‘Pro-active Tree Management Policy’ as proof that our Council could use this technique is another example of half-truth. While this is quite a good document, it should be taken in context as a 2003 policy designed to commence a process of tree management in an area where there were significant numbers of similarly aged trees causing safety hazards with trees and limbs falling in the violent storms experienced in Sydney at that time, unmanaged root systems causing trip hazards and road and pavement damage, and to mitigate the possibility that many old trees would be lost at the same time. With regard to root pruning or shaving the reference should have noted the following statement in section 4.3 Management of trip hazards as a result of root growth:

“Please note that these treatments will only be carried out if the treatment does not affect the health or stability of the tree”.

My discussions with arborists and people working in the field of urban horticulture indicates that the amount of root disturbance, shaving and removal which would be required to address all the pavement and infrastructure damage issues of our mature camphors would have a high likelihood of causing a significantly adverse impact on the heath and stability of all of the trees concerned.

• It is possible to keep the trees AND create a fully accessible, inclusive town centre where everyone is welcome and can move safely around. This can be done by creating platforms/ elevated walkways which sit above the roots which are currently causing the broken and uneven pavement. There will be ramps so everyone can have access to all areas of the street. 

As noted above, we do not have the space to accommodate the required boardwalks, platforms and ramps which would be needed. The ongoing maintenance of this kind of infrastructure would also be prohibitive for a small council AND these are aging trees which have been poorly pruned and managed for many, many decades prior to this council, so there is no guarantee that if this work could be done now, at great expense, that much of the work would have to be ripped up and re-done in the foreseeable future because these trees die or become unsafe.

• These trees are heritage listed

They are not and never have been. Bellingen Shire Council does not have a ‘Significant Tree Register’. It would be good to come together as a community to decide our criteria for the ‘heritage listing’ of trees and establish a Register.

• Camphors provide habitat and food for native animals

Camphors seem to only provide incidental habitat for some birds or passing nocturnal animals. I am not sure but suspect their toxicity may contribute to this, although it is also generally true that native animals and birds just prefer native habitat for food and shelter if available. In the case of food, it is true that the white-headed pigeons love the camphors berries……unfortunately this means that even the seeds of street bound town trees like these have a big impact on the spread of camphors over the farmlands of the valley as the birds eat the berries and carry the seed far and wide in their droppings. Those uneaten are washed into our waterways with the next heavy rains. While I understand their noxious weed status has not been a factor in this process, it is clear that if our shire doesn’t commence a concerted eradication program for the camphors growing in our farmland valleys we will soon become like the valleys of the Tweed and Byron shires where most rural and fringe forest areas have been reduced to a homogenous camphor green as this virulent, invasive species has all but taken over, with huge impacts on wild life in these areas through loss of habitat.

• Taking out these huge old trees will negatively impact climate change as all trees do an important job as the ‘lungs of the earth’. So why are Greens Councillors supporting this?

The loss of these trees as 'lungs' for the town is true when looked at as the single issue of removing 5 mature trees, for no reason and with no consideration of replacement. Looking more broadly, while there will be a loss of canopy for shade protection, and the positive water/ CO2/Oxygen exchanges of transpiration and photosynthesis, the trees are being replaced with mature trees so these losses will reduce in the longer term. . There are also more trees to be planted in the Main Street plan than will be removed, which will significantly reduce the losses in the short –term and over time will yield a net improvement as the newly planted trees mature. Added to this, and increasingly as the main street plan is progressively implemented, our town centre will become an inclusive, accessible and welcoming environment for all.

The Green’s are not a ‘single issue’ party and these social justice and inclusion outcomes should be of equal importance to all progressive thinkers.

Casting a “Green “ gaze” over the changes, it is hard to argue there will not be improved environmental outcomes in the long term, there will definitely be improved social justice and equity outcomes and it is highly likely (if the results of the north Church St upgrade are any indication – remember these were also condemned as “a waste money” and “offering nothing to the town”) there will be improved community and business outcomes.

I have been comforted this evening to see that Bellingen is finally showing it's true colours in this difficult time, and there are now people wanting to gather to give thanks and farewell these trees, to mourn their loss and celebrate what they have given to us all. " Cr Wright-Turner


  1. Thanks Toni - A strong, cogent analysis.

  2. Great post Toni! Keep up the good work :)