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Duty divided for upkeep of Spokane’s urban trees

Thu., April 9, 2009, midnight

City arborist hopes for funds to complete inventory

A few weeks ago, shortly after 6 a.m., a neighbor stopped by to let Erin Shiley know there was a 50-foot tree lying across the back seat of Shiley’s car.

While a loud crash had jolted her awake prior to the knock, Shiley had dismissed the noise as periodic lower South Hill vandalism. “I thought somebody’s car was getting messed up,” Shiley said.

But what she found outside was her own late-model Ford, a present from her dad just three weeks earlier, crushed like a tin can on tires. A tree from the easement between the sidewalk and the street in front of her apartment in the 1200 block of West Eighth Avenue was resting on the back end.

Jeff Perry, arborist for the city of Spokane’s Urban Forestry Program, , arrived soon after and concluded the culprit was roughly two feet around and in poor health, though still living, before the fall. While Perry couldn’t elaborate on causes due to an ongoing investigation, he said a few days of strong winds, compounded by other factors, may have weakened the tree.

Now Shiley, a single mother who had limited insurance on her car, is wondering who will step forward to claim liability. “I don’t think anybody really wants to take responsibility for it at all,” she said.

According to Spokane’s street tree ordinance adopted in 1999, trees in public rights of way are under the supervisory jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department, while the abutting property owner is charged with maintenance. This splits the burden of responsibility and gives the city authority to require permits for major work like planting, pruning or removing trees, but it also limits the city’s capacity to know when trees pose a risk to the public due to poor health or damage.

While Perry sees this particular incident as an isolated event, he also believes a complete inventory of the city’s trees would help pinpoint and eliminate risks before they sprout similar disasters.

In an inventory, crews first categorize and then rate trees on their condition. This gives the city the ability, and liability, to contact owners if there is a problem and get it remedied. But because the last year a citywide inventory of trees was taken was 1996, it limits the city’s response in situations like Shiley’s. “We’re protected, in a sense, because if we don’t know of the problem, we can’t inform people of the problem,” Perry said.

Completing a full-scale catalog of urban trees seems unlikely in the near future, given the program consists of Perry, horticultural supervisor Steve Nittolo and two part-time seasonal staff members.

Perry said an inventory started a year ago is about 10 percent complete but, with tens of thousands of trees still to look at, it could be obsolete before it’s ever finished.

“It’s my hope that the city will contract this out so that it can get done quickly,” Perry said. “Two or three months, as opposed to a longer timeframe, which would make the first trees inventoried outdated by the time all were done.”

Nittolo estimates it would cost around $350,000 to contract a complete inventory of public trees, a high figure for the program, which is at the bottom of the list of city expenditures, with $62,500 allocated from the general fund in 2009.

“We’re in the process of looking for more funding,” said Nittolo, who hopes this summer to receive a grant through the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Spokane’s status as a Tree City USA, a nationwide program sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation, could also open some doors to grant funding.

While the price tag for an inventory may seem high in a troubled economic climate, Nittolo said it’s vital, and not just for public safety.

“We’re hoping an inventory will help people understand the value of green infrastructure,” Nittolo said. “Just like roads, trees are an important aspect of a city.”

The American Forestry Association estimates the economic value of a community tree is 25 times greater than the value of a tree grown strictly for lumber, a value derived from the diverse benefits for residents and the larger ecosystem. The 1996 comprehensive survey appraised the worth of Spokane’s urban forests at more than $103 million.

“People, both citizens and officials, are becoming more aware of the value of keeping these trees healthy,” Nittolo said.

Meanwhile, Shiley’s car has been towed away along with a crushed baby seat.

“It’s really put me in a hard spot because that car was pretty much the only thing I had,” said Shiley, who said she’s in the process of filing a claim against the city.

A representative of South Side Investments LLC, the company that manages Shiley’s apartment building, declined to give his name and said he didn’t know who owned the property and was unaware the city sees the property owner as being responsible for upkeep on adjacent public trees.

“We’re not going to go tell everybody to prune their trees, but if there’s a problem, it needs to be dealt with,” said Perry. “If the Urban Forestry Department had the budget to upkeep all these trees, we probably would, but we just don’t have enough manpower to get ahead.”

“Bottom line is, the need is urgent for this inventory. I’d really like to see it happen sooner than later,” Nittolo said.

Reach correspondent Ryan Lancaster by e-mail at

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