Neighborhood searches for answers after man hit by tree limb

Neighborhood searches for answers after man hit by tree limb »Play Video
(KATU photo)

CLARK COUNTY, Wash. - Storms can knock down trees, into yards and even into people.

But people living in a Clark County neighborhood said a construction company did that same kind of damage as crews took down tall trees for a new housing development.

They said those trees broke their fences and even sent a man to the hospital.

"Smacked me out of sight, almost," said Don Pipkin, age 79. "Like a Louisville Slugger, right upside my head."

The development is called Norwegian Hollow and is north of Vancouver. A sign shows the developer to be JB Homes.

JB Homes hired contractor Rotschy, Inc, with an office in Vancouver, to remove trees.

The big trees lined up along the fence between the development and the old neighborhood. The trees were on the development property, but neighbors said the trees' long limbs hung over into their yards.

Neighbors said the tree-removal project went wrong, starting with a house on the corner at the beginning of May. They said crews took the tree down, and the long limbs swept through the yard, damaging a fence and other property.

Neighbors said Rotschy continued the tree work, moving on to the house next door.

Don and Jan Pipkin said they were in their backyard, looking at their shed, when suddenly, they heard chainsaws stop and saw a tree started going down, its large limbs moving with it.

"As I come around the end of the shed, the tree limb caught me, knocked me ten feet backward, out," said Don Pipkin. "Don't know what hit me, just like a ton of bricks."

"The limb reached down, scooped him up and threw him against that fence. Broke it," said Jan Pipkin.

Don Pipkin went to the hospital in an ambulance.

"Concussion," he said. "One limb almost put my eye out."

Neighbors said Rotschy kept going. About a week later, they dropped a tree a few houses down, behind Barb Stellini's place.

Two of her kids were playing in the back yard before school. Stellini said, once again, a tree went down, and large limb hanging into her yard swung through, breaking the fence, smashing into her gazebo and landing just a few feet from her 8-year-old son.

"But for the grace of God, my children were not injured," said Stellini.

She said the tree limbs also took out a fence and another tree in the yard next door to hers.

Neighbors said Rotschy finally stopped and someone else finished the tree work.

"I need people to know that this was not good business," said Stellini.

What went wrong?

JB Homes refused to comment.

Rotschy sent the KATU Problem Solvers a statement saying, "Although Rotschy employees were following usual safety procedures, some incidents occurred. We have been actively investigating these incidents and are forwarding all information to our insurance company and working with them to quickly resolve any claims."

Neighbors say that is not enough, and does not explain how three trees damaged four yards and hit a person and why the crews kept going.

The Problem Solvers checked the tree cutting permit application submitted to Clark County. It said Rotschy was removing the trees because they were hazardous to the new houses under construction.

But the Clark County forester told the Problem Solvers that Rotschy was also logging the trees, taking down the trees as logs to sell commercially.

The Problem Solvers checked in with tree experts to see if Rotschy did its urban logging the right way.

The International Society of Arboriculture said there are crucial safety steps people should follow if they are going to log a tree in a city setting, with houses around:

  • Try to "limb" the tree first. Remove big limbs before they drop the tree, so they don't do damage to people or property.
  • Clear the drop zone. Make sure there are no people in a large area around the tree, a circle with a diameter as wide as the tree is tall.
  • Work with a certified arborist who knows how to take down trees in a city.

The Problem Solvers tried to ask Rotschy about the procedures its crews followed and what went awry in the tree project. We sent e-mails and visited to Rotschy's Vancouver office.

"I didn't have a chance to address it yet," said Will Rinta, Rotschy's safety manager.

Soon after, he said, "This is my house, where you listen and I talk, OK? We're done."

Rinta quickly ended the visit without explaining what went wrong with the trees.

"So, we are done. Any further coming on to our properties or projects we consider trespass, okay?" said Rinta.

Don Pipkin said he still has headaches from the tree, and suffers other aches as well.

Neighbors said they still want to know if Rotschy has made changes in how they drop trees, or if the next neighborhood tree removal project could leave the same kind of destruction behind.

"They caused physical harm to a person, then put other people at risk," said Stellini. "I really want to see accountability."

Clark County has decided Rotschy is responsible for paying homeowners whose property was damaged.

You can find certified arborists through the International Society of Arboriculture web site. The City of Vancouver also has help for people looking for information about tree care.