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Falling Trees

In our September issue, we chronicled your editor’s bout with Parks and SDOT over a fallen tree; here is Chapter 2 by another homeowner next to the ill-fated undeveloped street: Aldine Place. ~Diane Snell, Editor

In the 19th century, artist and philosopher William Blake wrote, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

Well, one woman, me, who is fortunate to live bordered by green space off of E. Alder, appreciates Blake’s joyful sentiments although she has come to discover that a tree that falls brings tears of despair, not joy.

The disillusionment began in February on a still, windless morning when, after a thunderous explosion, I looked up to see the forest moving, quickly, downward toward our front door, a nightmarish vision worthy of Macbeth and one that was followed by the thud of maple titans on our roof. A large maple on Parks green space property had failed and hit two neighboring maples growing on SDOT (Seattle Department of Transportation) land. It was the latter two, which wrapped themselves up, over and around our house.

I phoned in quick succession my husband, Seattle Parks and my home insurance company. As many readers know, once a tree lands on your property it is, typically, now your problem. The two city agencies refused to help. Our insurance company covered (less deductible) the removal of the trees that were on our property, a new roof and the smashed barbecue. Unfortunately, lost garden plants could not be reimbursed. And we were now surrounded by a tangle of remaining limbs that rested on public right of way.

Fast forward to August when the process was repeated: a tree from the same stand came down—this time missing the house but taking a number of branches from other trees with it, blocking our pathway and sole egress to the street. Lost in the green carnage was a 20-foot magnificent rhododendron. Once again, Parks and SDOT refused to help. Parks debris was all over SDOT property but, per city law, property owners bordering an undeveloped roadway are responsible for maintaining the half of the roadway closest to their property. Never mind that I had been maintaining it and that magnificent rhododendron—now smashed to smithereens—was part of that work! Realizing that public resources are limited, I suggested we meet half way and offered that my family would get all the debris from fallen city trees down to the street, asking just that the city pick up the pile. No go.

There was a recent article on the front page of the Seattle Times about the unexplained deaths of large maples in the state:

And with climate change, increased development, pollution, the deleterious effects of invasive species, more large trees will be coming down. City policy is often in “the gray area” on this matter. I am currently making my way through the various ordinances. But I would suggest most tree owners and those concerned by neighboring trees check out an interview with Victor Merullo, a lawyer who specializes in trees. It is from the Seattle Times (2004). One excerpt:

Q: My neighbor’s two Douglas fir trees are very tall and sway terribly during storms. I fear they could fall on my house. What are my rights to demand this neighbor cut these trees down?

A: “In common law, people living in an urban area have a duty to inspect each and every tree on their property to determine if it’s a hazard, and if they determine it is a hazard they have a duty to remove it,” explains Merullo. So, the onus is on your neighbor. If the trees are healthy, you have no right to demand their removal. However, if you suspect otherwise, your best course of action is to hire a certified arborist to examine the firs and write a report. If this report finds that the trees are unhealthy, mail a copy to your neighbor along with a letter stating that these trees are hazardous and need to be removed. You might also point out that insurance companies won’t pay for damage that results from negligence. Merullo says that message usually does the trick.

For more on trees and the law, go to:

We will file a claim with the city to help pay for clean up. Stay tuned. And pay attention to your trees—appreciate their glory but know your rights and responsibilities.

~Anne Depue

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