Riach firm in birch battle

SNEEZE FACTOR: The two silver birches outside Canterbury rugby boss Hamish Riach's house.
SNEEZE FACTOR: The two silver birches outside Canterbury rugby boss Hamish Riach's house.

The boss of Canterbury rugby wants two towering silver birch trees that stand outside his Merivale home chopped down because they make members of his family sick.

Crusaders chief executive Hamish Riach, has been pushing to get the trees removed from outside his Rugby St property since December 2009, but the Christchurch City Council has been reluctant to cut the healthy trees down.

Riach claims the silver birches, which stand about 12 metres tall, are a nuisance and a health hazard.

Members of his family have had severe allergic reaction to the trees.

He has offered to pay for replacements of another species.

Yesterday, Riach was reluctant to comment publicly about the fight to get rid of the trees for fear of jeopardising his chance of success.

"I just want to get the bloody things down," he said.

Scientists have linked silver birch trees, which line many Christchurch streets, to lip swelling, nausea, wheezing, vomiting and hay fever.

In June 2007, Fendalton woman Elspeth Tothill, 71, known as Jimmo, died after a suspected severe allergic reaction to silver birch pollen from trees on a reserve near her Clyde Rd home.

A year earlier the then director of Lincoln University's Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation, Professor Ian Spellerberg, published a scientific article calling for silver birches to be removed from public places. He said their pollen was a major cause of health problems and allergic reactions.

That same year the council decided it would stop planting silver birch trees, but it ruled out city-wide removal because of the expense.

At the time it was estimated that getting rid of the 3000 silver birches on public land in Christchurch would cost more than $3 million.

Instead, the council decided it would only remove the troublesome trees for "tree health and safety reasons".

Tomorrow, the Fendalton-Waimairi Community Board will hold an extraordinary meeting to consider whether to make an exception to that rule and grant Riach's request to have the silver birches outside his property felled.

Council staff recommend the board decline the request.

Community board chairwoman Val Carter said yesterday it was not uncommon for the board to get requests for the removal of silver birches.

"People don't like silver birches because of allergies and because they make a mess. They are the tree that people dislike the most," Carter said.

"I don't know which way the vote will go but there is definitely a problem on Rugby St."

The council has canvassed the views of Riach's neighbours on whether the trees should be removed, sending out letters to 20 nearby properties.

Of the 10 responses it received, eight supported removing the two trees and two were opposed.

Of the eight who supported removing the trees, three wanted silver birches removed from outside their properties too and one wanted them removed from all street frontages.

The two property owners opposed to removing the trees questioned what difference it would make to the pollen count, given the other silver birches along Rugby St.

The Press