Trees may not cause pollution, as Ronald Reagan once famously declared, but they certainly can wreak havoc. “We just took one off a car this morning in Princeton,” says arborist Jack Scratchard on a mid-January day as winds were gusting to 40 miles per hour. The founder of SilvaGuard, a 25-year-old tree service with offices at 299 Upper Ferry Road, has been having a busy winter. On that one windy day his crews were taking three fallen trees away from houses. “One went through the roof,” he says. “They were all uprooted.”
“The problem with a lot of trees, particularly evergreens,” he says, “is that they become vulnerable to wind when the ground is saturated.” During the summer, he points out, the evergreens are often surrounded by deciduous trees in full leaf. They are protected. But when most other trees are bare, the evergreens stand alone, and sometimes their needle-filled branches catch enough wind to push them over.
Deciduous trees are far from immune to gusts of wind, though. Even if the tree itself is able to stay upright, it is common to see branches — some weighing many hundreds of pounds — blocking roads, downing power lines, or resting amid the debris of a garage, front porch, or family room.
The problem has become so pervasive in leafy suburban towns that insurance companies now demand that trees they deem hazardous be pruned or cut down as a condition of writing — or renewing — a homeowner policy. “We’ve just seen it within the last five or six years,” says Scratchard. “The insurance companies will not write a policy. It happens a lot now.”
Called in by homeowners trying to save their trees, he can often assure the insurance company that a particular tree is sound, and not likely to come down any time soon. “If I sign off, they’ve been pretty good,” he says.
Often the tree that causes a homeowner to lose sleep — and maybe even insurance coverage — is on his own property. However, neighbors’ trees also can be a concern. But is there anything to be done if the maple next door is leaning toward the nursery? Yes indeed, says Stark & Stark attorney Paul Norris.
“I just had a case,” he says. “My client’s neighbor had a large oak tree, and branches from the tree had caused damage to his roof and car.” Norris filed a suit, the neighbor did not respond, and his client was awarded a judgment to cover the cost of pruning the tree.
The nuisance does not even have to be extreme for such a judgment to be obtained. “It can be big branches hitting a window, sap, or even pine cones,” says Norris. Judgments in Special Civil Court can now range up to $15,000 — more than enough to remove even a large tree, he points out. That court is easy for homeowners with a tree grievance to navigate, he says. Complaints can even be hand-written, and judgments generally are reached much more quickly than they are in higher courts.
Norris and his client went to court armed with photos and with an arborist’s estimate of what it would cost to trim back the tree. Putting together that kind of evidence is important. He is confident that, with the documentation he and his client gathered, he would have won the case even if the neighbor had contested the suit.
Keeping a written — and visual — record of problems caused by a nuisance tree could be important even if no lawsuit is being contemplated. This is so because if a neighbor’s rotting neglected tree should crash into a house, the neighbor would be liable for the damage. On the other hand, says Norris, if the neighbor’s healthy tree were to be blown into your house during a storm, it would generally be considered an act of God and the neighbor would not be liable. In that case, you would make a claim under your own insurance.
Some tree-accidents can not be foreseen or prevented. The best maintained tree in the world is unlikely to remain in one piece during a tornado. But there is a lot than can be done to keep trees upright in most conditions. Scratchard gives most Princeton-area homeowners high marks in tree maintenance. “When you have a 100-year-old tree here, usually it has been well taken care of,” he says. A maintenance basic is regular pruning to remove dead branches. Feeding the roots is also important, and it is vital to keep from paving them over.
“One tree that fell today was directly adjacent to a driveway that had been re-paved,” says Scratchard. The paving interfered with its root system, and made it vulnerable. “You can see what is going above the ground,” he says, “but you can’t see what is happening under ground.” Trees are anchored by thousands of tiny root hairs, he points out. Digging, even a good distance away from a tree, or putting in new driveways or sidewalks, can weaken the root system enough to compromise a tree, he says.
In addition to new paving, homeowners worried about trees on or near their property should look for cavities. A tree with a cavity can be stable, but if the cavity is low, and there is a lot of weight on top of it, it could be nearing the end of its run. Bracing the tree with cables can increase its stability.
Other danger signs can be as simple as the tree’s age and size. A large, top-heavy tree that has passed its 100th birthday should probably be watched. Still, if it is sitting way off in the backyard, far from where anyone is likely to be picnicking or playing, it might be fine to let it live out its natural life.
“Before you take down a tree you need two things,” says Scratchard, “a defect and a target. If you have a big tree and a small house, you might want to take it down. You look at size, health, structural stability, and target.” Loved for their beauty, their shade, and as hammock anchors, trees still should not be taken for granted.