Nature's Path owner agrees to fine for cutting trees

Arran Stephens reaches deal with City of Vancouver to pay just under $32,000 penalty

The owner of a multi-million dollar Point Grey property at the edge of UBC has agreed to pay a fine of just under $32,000 for removing trees without a city permit in November 2010.

Arran Stephens had been charged with 25 counts in violation of Vancouver's protection of trees bylaw. The case was set to go to trial Tuesday morning. His lawyer was expected to raise a Charter argument, but that didn't happen. Stephens settled the case by agreeing to fines adding up to $31,951 and a statement of facts about the incident.

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"I'm relieved that it's over and we can just move on with our lives," he told the Courier shortly after signing the paperwork.

Charges against his wife Ratana Stephens and Murray Sims Construction Ltd. were dropped.

Stephens, who runs Nature's Path Foods, bought the 104-by-104 foot property at 4785 West Second Ave., for $5.1 million Oct. 28, 2010.

The home and garden were poorly maintained for decades, so his intention was to restore the house and landscape the yard-a project that included clearing brush, removing dead and dying trees and replacing them with new trees and an organic garden.

In November 2010, a neighbour noticed almost all the trees and vegetation had been cut and cleared and were being sorted into piles of wood and stumps at the back of the property. The neighbour reported the situation to the city.

An inspector visited the site and issued a stop work order. At the time, Stephens acknowledged responsibility in an interview with the Courier. He said he'd made a mistake not getting the permits, he'd lost sleep over the matter, and that he would make amends.

On Tuesday, when asked why he considered going through a trial, Stephens said he wanted to make sure "we had a fair hearing and a fair representation from our side."

Now that both he and the city agreed to the statement of facts, he said "it was not worthwhile to pursue it any further.

"We came to basically a harmonious agreement between the city and ourselves," he said.

Stephens has since planted 19 new non-fruit trees and 29 new fruit trees on the property, as well as 78 blueberry bushes and 70 cedars for a seven-foot hedge at the back lane, according the statement of facts.

The document also noted Stephens' philanthropic activities, including a $1 million donation to Vancouver General Hospital, along with his health problems in recent years. Stephens underwent a life-saving liver transplant for non-alcoholic end-stage cirrhosis March 7, 2011.

Between November and December 2010, Stephens was in and out of hospital, weakened from his illness and "not paying attention to the redevelopment of the property and landscaping project at this time."

"The decision to remove the trees from the property without having obtained the required permits was inadvertent on the part of Mr. Stephens, and it was an impetuous decision he made while dealing with his illness and juggling the running of his business and the simultaneous redevelopment of two substantial properties," the facts read.

The statement of facts also reference an arborist report, which Stephens commissioned, by Norman Hol of Arbortech Consulting Ltd.

Hol found five of the removed trees were previously dead, five were in very poor condition and in an advanced state of decline, and 10 were in poor condition showing significant defects. Thirteen of the trees, Hol noted, may have been viable for rehabilitation and interim retention.

Hol's report mentioned that the landscape was poorly maintained, and that he could "reasonably conclude" that the 10 dead or very poor trees would qualify for approval to remove had a permit been requested."

Years before Stephens bought the property, the city advised the then-owner to remove several hazardous trees from the site. Six trees had fallen on to a neighbour's property.

The penalty for violating Vancouver's protection of trees bylaw ranges from $500 to $10,000 for each offence.

Stephens agreed to pay a fine of $1,159 for count one and $1,268 on counts 2 through 25 for the $31,591 total penalty.

While critics in illegal tree removal cases have sometimes complained the penalty is just the cost of doing business for some wealthy property owners, Stephens maintains that's not a fair statement in his case.

"Look at my life, look at my record. I've been a champion of the environment and social causes all of my life," he said.

Twitter: @Naoibh

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