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Residents rallied to save a beloved neighbourhood tree

A 30-metre oak tree on Edinburgh Road is this year's Notable Tree Award Winner

A giant tree along Edinburgh Road may not be here today if it weren't for a group of residents who rallied around it. 

The 30-metre tall bur oak is the recipient of this year's Notable Tree Award, more for the story that helped keep it a prominent fixture on Edinburgh Road the past 36 years.

It's located in front of 303 Edinburgh Rd. S., on the west side of the street just north of College Avenue.

Back in 1986, the tree posed a challenge for Guelph Hydro, which was looking to build a high voltage circuit from the Cedar Transformer Station to the city's south end along the street.

The new, taller, hydro poles would supply power to a growing part of Guelph, but this tree, estimated to be 150-years-old at the time, was blocking its path. 

To deal with the tree, Guelph Hydro presented three options to the city's engineering department; cutting the tree down and replacing it, installing the lines underground for an added cost or pruning the branches back by eight inches to let the wires through.

The city decided to go with the third option and made their recommendation at a council meeting in July of that year; however, a group of residents living in the neighbourhood did not like this decision. 

"If you live on a street where hydro has pruned your trees, you know, they do it without very much grace," said Brian Wilcock, who was part of the group with his wife, Anne, that opposed pruning the tree.

A group of roughly eight neighbours sought the expert opinion of specialists on underground auger methods and local arborists about the proposed solutions by Guelph Hydro. Wilcock said the opinion of one of the arborist's was that pruning the tree would either cause permanent disfigurement or possibly kill the tree.

"So here we've got this massive old tree that's been around since Guelph was born, or earlier," said Wilcock, "and I mean, because we're all kind of tree-huggers and environmentally sensitive, we thought, 'What a crappy reason to endanger a tree of this size and majesty just to run some hydro wires. Why not just run them across the street?'"

A few weeks later, Wilcock gave a presentation on behalf of the group to city council against pruning the tree and proposed crossing the hydro line around the tree. 

"At the end of the day, we convinced them that this tree that had been around for so long, that it was an important tree to the neighbourhood and had the right to life," said Wilcock.

Today, Wilcock and his wife no longer live in the neighbourhood, but still drive by the tree. He said most of the people involved have passed away, so the experience has become a cherished memory.

"Council at the time sided with us, and so the tree, in a sense, has become even more special to the neighbourhood because it's had a new lease on life and was rescued from the grave, basically."

The clash between residents and Guelph Hydro is why the Guelph Urban Forest Friends (GUFF) have chosen this tree as recipient of the Notable Tree Award 2022. The suggestion to nominate the oak tree came from members of GUFF who were also part of Nature Guelph who heard of the story.

"One of the things that really intrigued me was that the people didn't settle for the solutions that were presented, because none of them accommodated the tree, and they set off to find a solution that accommodated the tree," said Sue Rietschin, steering board committee member of GUFF, about the tree.

"It could've been a terrible ending for the tree if citizens hadn't taken it on."

Rietschin adds the group went through great lengths to approach city council and convince people of the tree, and the story touches on the current issue of balancing the need for development versus maintaining the city's tree canopy.

"We're having all sorts of challenges, many of our neighbourhoods are constructed now without enough space for big trees and not enough soil to sustain them," she said.

"It (the story) certainly shows the value of trees to many people in Guelph."

For Wilcock, this story is also an example of democracy at work.

"Guelph, even today, is small enough that if you have an issue, if you have a plan, if you have an argument, you can still go to city council and make a change," said Wilcock. "I've always been impressed that in Guelph, the little voice can still make a difference."