Linda Smalley was at work when a tree from a vacant lot around the corner fell into her backyard, crushing her fence and knocking pieces off her deck.
When she saw the damage and thought about how much it would cost to fix, “all I could do was walk away,” the 63-year-old Germantown homeowner said. “That was a hard hit.”
After some of the shock wore off, she started contacting city and state officials.
“I just knew I was gonna get some help,” she said.
That was in 2016. Six years later, part of the tree is still lying in her yard. Smalley can barely see the tree itself, now hidden beneath the plants that have crept over it season after season, year after year.
Smalley, who has owned her home for two decades, has discovered how difficult seemingly straightforward problems can become and how elusive help can be for folks without a lot of money in Philadelphia. A fallen tree can turn into a years-long headache for homeowners who have unaccommodating neighbors and can’t afford removal. Because of the circumstances around the tree’s collapse onto Smalley’s property, city departments and officials say they can’t do anything to help.
Not long after the tree fell, Smalley said, she paid more than $400 to rent a saw and hire a guy to remove the part of the tree that was taking up much of her small backyard. Removal of large trees can cost thousands of dollars, and she couldn’t afford that. In the following years, she’s had other more pressing problems to deal with.
A road accident a few years ago left her with lasting arm and back pain for which she is still trying to find relief. She had to stop working as a direct support professional for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and those dealing with drug and alcohol dependency. Her husband had a stroke last year. Then a bad case of COVID-19 knocked her down this spring.
Trying to find help
In Philadelphia, if a neighbor’s tree falls in someone else’s yard, the neighbor is responsible for damage. In Smalley’s case, she can’t walk around the corner and confront a property owner because no one lives on the grassy lot with a broken back fence. She said she sent a letter to the owner that came back undeliverable.
Through the years, she’s called 311, the city’s help line for nonemergency services, and reached out to the offices of state and local elected officials looking for help to remove the tree.
She didn’t think someone would come immediately. “But I didn’t think it would take six, seven years, either,” she said. “That’s too long to be dealing with a tree.”
Smalley would have had an easier time finding help from city departments if the city owned the lot or the tree were still standing and at risk of falling and potentially hurting someone.
The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation recommends that homeowners seek legal help if a privately owned tree damages their property and talking to the owner doesn’t work. In April, Smalley went to a free legal clinic for homeowners that came to her neighborhood, but no one there could do anything about the tree.
Because the tree has already fallen and doesn’t pose a threat to people’s safety, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has no authority to act, according to city officials. They suggested Smalley ask a legal aid clinic such as Community Legal Services for help.
But the legal nonprofit said that homeowners don’t have many options for assistance in a situation such as this. The group suggested trying to raise money through an online campaign or asking a local community organization whether a volunteer could come over with a chainsaw. But organizations’ resources are stretched thin.
Consequences of the fall
Smalley doesn’t go into her backyard anymore. Her deck — with its missing boards on the side and gaping hole where steps should be — is no longer a place to relax or grill. All she sees is six years of frustration.
The first year, children climbed on the fallen tree and walked across it. Smalley feared someone might get hurt. The children have left, but the tree remains.
Each spring, Smalley starts battling the ants that started to invade her house after the tree fell. “It gets worse the longer the tree sits there,” she said.
She said she’s considering moving to Delaware, where her brother lives.
“I can’t use my backyard because of a downed tree from 2016,″ she said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Out of ideas
Smalley said she hasn’t told her insurance company about the damage, because she’s afraid the premium on her homeowners insurance policy could go up. She has reason to worry.
If a tree falls due to neglect, the owner of the property where the tree was standing is responsible. But if a tree falls due to a natural cause such as wind, the neighbor whose property was damaged would have to file a claim through his or her own insurance, said Rob Bhatt, an insurance agent who writes articles for QuoteWizard, the insurance division of the online lending marketplace LendingTree. The neighbor then could face an increase in insurance costs, he said.
The owner of the vacant lot near Smalley probably doesn’t have homeowners insurance because there’s no home on the lot, but may have some kind of liability coverage, Bhatt said. He said Smalley could have filed a legal claim against the owner of the vacant lot, or she could have sued for damages. But these options are subject to legal fees and time limits.
Smalley thought there must be an easier way to get rid of the tree. Now she doesn’t know what else to do.
“It was 2016″ when the tree fell, she said. “It’s ‘22. That don’t make sense.”