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Bainbridge city workers welcome alerts of unsafe trees near roads

Four alder trees, which are being uprooted in an area of heavy runoff, lean precariously over Rockaway Beach Drive. - Dennis Anstine | Staff Photo
Four alder trees, which are being uprooted in an area of heavy runoff, lean precariously over Rockaway Beach Drive.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine | Staff Photo

On an island where trees are king, keeping its 140 miles of public roads cleared of fallen trunks or limbs is never easy.

Winter windstorms, like the one that toppled a large Douglas fir onto Miller Road a few weeks ago, are often the cause. But heavy rain that leads to steady runoff down steep hills is also a problem during the wet season.

This past winter has been a relatively light one in terms of storms and downed trees, according to Lance Newkirk, interim director of the city’s Public Works Department.

Nevertheless, people worry when they see large conifers lying on roadways, often pulling electrical wires down with them, or alders leaning dangerously over a road they travel daily.

For example, John Stratz, a Rockaway Beach resident, pointed out two stands of trees Wednesday afternoon that appeared to be potential instruments of harm if they fell at the time an unfortunate motorist was passing beneath them.

The trunks of two firs located maybe 10 feet uphill of Rockaway Beach Drive had about a 30-degree tilt, as Stratz pointed out.

A little further north, four large alders appeared even more unsafe. The trees were being uprooted by a heavy runoff from above, which included a plastic pipe that was draining water from property above within a few feet of the stand of alders. Much of the steep area had standing water.

Stratz said he had asked members of a cleanup crew who were removing some tree debris from the road earlier in the day if they would tell someone at the city about the unsafe trees. He said they indicated they would. Maybe.

Newkirk said there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to deciding who’s responsible when a tree causes damages, but generally it falls on the owner of the property on which the guilty trees is rooted.

The city, Newkirk pointed, doesn’t own the road, so its responsibility is primarily to keep the public right-of-way “whole and safe.” That includes the horizontal (such as vegetation and drainage control) and vertical planes.

“We take care of sight-line problems, like trimming trees near the road, and ensure traffic safety when there is a problem,” Newkirk said. “We try to be proactive, removing unsafe trees when we find them or citizens point them out.”

Puget Sound Energy is usually notified when electrical lines are involved since city crews are not certified because of regulatory and safety issues surrounding such chores. PSE usually will call on the tree-removal company, Asplundh, for that job.

If the tree is on the road’s right-of-way, it will be removed by a city crew, “though we do hire contractors when we have a large trees that is beyond our capabilities,” Newkirk said.

If its discovered that an unsafe tree is located on private property, “the city will notify the owner by letter that the situation may require his attention to evaluate the tree’s condition,” he said.

Newkirk said determining the exact location of a road’s right-of-way is “space specific,” depending on the road. For example, he said, there are some roads where the city’s easement may not be the entire width of the road.

When a problem arises, “we will first address what the exact right-of-way boundary is,” he said. “A lot of times it is on private property and it’s the owner’s responsibility to do something about.”

He said the city attempts to be proactive in identifying problem trees, “but there’s a lot when you count both lanes, which means we have 280 miles of roads to watch.” Newkirk said. “We do our best to maintain the areas we are responsible for and we’re open to being alerted when there’s a problem.”

Stratz said he contacted the newspaper because the crew members he talked to seemed to be indifferent about passing on the information.

Newkirk said he would make sure city crews take a look at the trees.

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