Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the February

15, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Seek Shelter From Dangerous Trees

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.

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