During these relentless lockdown days, it is important to grab hold of small victories to nourish our COVID-scarred souls.
One such moment has befallen the small apartment community I live in, right in the heart of downtown St Kilda.
Now, when you think of St Kilda you might not immediately think of urban wildlife and significant trees, but out the back of our 100-year-old art deco apartment block there is one such tree – a eucalyptus yellow gum that is home to a family of possums, as well as birds including white-plumed honeyeaters, noisy miners, mudlarks, butcherbirds, currawongs and rainbow lorikeets.
The tree sits out the back of an adjoining property, but its canopy shades our backyard and provides a beautiful aspect out the back window of our apartments.
But a few weeks ago, out of the blue we were told the tree was going to be cut down. The reason we were given was because it was unwell and presented a “safety issue” for the tenants of the rental house where it is rooted.
Naturally enough we were mortified. My neighbours who had just moved in were in tears. We knew we had to fight it.
So we put together a petition that most tenants and owners in our building signed. We gathered photographic evidence that the tree was healthy and that the so-called safety issue just came down to the rental backyards being properly maintained. We even got a letter from an independent arborist to support our claim.
We knew it would be hard to stop because the permit had already been approved by the council. But sure enough, after we submitted our petition and objection evidence to the Port Phillip Council we got a call saying the permit had been cancelled based on our objection and we were invited to testify at the Port Phillip council meeting.
At the council meeting we testified that the tree was a healthy, significant tree, home to local habitat, and according to our arborist, still had around 80 years to live. The council agreed to get an independent assessment from another arborist to base the decision on.
In the meantime, we had noticed workers coming in and digging into the roots of the tree, and clearing the area for it to be destroyed.
We rang the council again and they sent a local by-law inspector around. Listening from the other side of the fence we heard the inspector asking what the workers were doing and stating – “the current permit has been cancelled – don’t touch the tree!”
And then a couple of weeks later we got the call from the council permit officer – the tree had been saved. Oh happy day! The independent assessor had verified the tree was healthy and may just require some maintenance henceforth. We could barely believe it – we had won!
We know it’s a small victory in the scheme of things.
But at a time when our urban centres desperately need wildlife corridors and places where local animals can find habitat, and at a time when many local councils have recently declared a climate emergency – this is not the time to let healthy, significant trees die simply because landlords and estate agents don’t want to invest in properly maintaining backyards or their properties.
As this lockdown tests us all, divides communities and diminishes people’s lives in so many ways – this felt like the victory we needed to bring our community together and remind us that even in these dark times there is still such a thing as local democracy – and it is still the efforts of every one of us within those communities that will see us all through to the other side.
And in the meantime, those of us living in this tiny community in downtown St Kilda can continue to wake up to the morning chorus of rainbow lorikeets and white plumed-honeyeaters.
James Norman is a Melbourne writer.