If a tree falls in Pennypack Park...

Posted: September 04, 2014

FOR SOME FOLKS, the wind's howl in the night makes them grateful to be safe under cozy covers.

Joe and Janet Witkowski are not among these people.

In their home - a sweet little rowhouse on Rhett Road in the Northeast - the roar of wind chases them out of their bedroom, in the rear of the house, and into the living room, up front.

That's because their property backs up to the forested Walton's Run section of Pennypack Park. The Witkowskis fear that a gigantic limb from one of its ancient sassafras or maple trees will crack through their roof, crushing them in their bed.

Branches have plummeted before; Hurricane Sandy blew a heavy limb on top of their backyard fence. Other neighbors, too, find branches in their yard after a storm. The Witkowskis fear it's a matter of time before their roof is slammed by one particular tree - easily three stories high - that looks rotted at the base and has been leaning closer to the house after each rainfall.

"If a storm is forecast, we sleep on the sofa," says Janet, 78, who has lived on Rhett Road with Joe, 80, for 17 years. "We feel we're better protected."

The Witkowskis' daughter, Maryanne Balkir, contacted me on their behalf. She said her parents had called 3-1-1 for help with the tree, to no avail.

They'd also left unreturned messages with numerous departments in City Hall, including the Mayor's Office. They wanted someone from the city to trim the tree, since they couldn't afford the $1,700 estimate they received from an independent tree service to trim its bigger limbs.

"They're on a fixed income," Balkir said. "No one is helping them."

I felt for the Witkowskis, as well as for their neighbors, Jean and Howard Siegel, who also sleep in their living room. A huge limb looms just feet from their bedroom window.

"The city needs to top off the trees so that if they come down, they won't reach the house," said Howard. "No one is ever back there doing maintenance."

That's true, says Mark Focht, the Parks and Rec Department's first deputy commissioner of parks and facilities. The city's 22 full-time certified arborists are too busy tending actual emergencies among the city's 2.2 million trees to do routine walk-throughs of forests that abut private property.

In order of priority, says Focht, the arborists tend to needy street trees first, since dropped limbs can block roads.

Next come trees near heavily used public areas.

Last are trees near private residences like the Witkowskis'. Not because big trees don't pose a potential danger, but because Parks and Rec must mitigate the biggest dangers first.

Besides, park trees abutting private property can be difficult to access. Workers can't cross private property without permission and it's a challenge to haul heavy equipment and machinery across someone's backyard.

"We definitely respond to emergency calls from property owners, but not everything they think is an emergency is actually an emergency," Focht says. For example, "Not every tree that leans is going to fall down. Trees on the edge of the forest tend to lean outward, toward the light."

As for trees that fall in the forest itself, they're allowed to lay there. Downed trees provide nests for birds and habitats for other animals. And as the tree biodegrades, it adds important nutrients to the soil.

Having said all that, a few days after my call to the city, Parks and Rec did, indeed, send an arborist to the Witkowskis' property. One tree was deemed dangerous and taken down. But the arborist was too late to assess another tree that the Witkowskis had been too worried about to ignore any longer. They hired that private arborist, and forked over $1,700.

In the future, Focht advises, the Witkowskis and others should skip the calls to random city departments (and to the press) and just call 3-1-1 with a detailed complaint. That way, their request will get a tracking number, making it easier for everyone to follow it through the system.

I realize that $1,700 was a lot of money for the Witkowskis to pay. (And Focht says private citizens are allowed to prune trees on their own dime, so long as they use a tree service on the city's approved list of vendors.)

But I couldn't help thinking, as the couple led me past their yard and into the forest it abuts, that $1,700 is a bargain for living alongside such beauty.

Walton's Run is heavenly. Bisected by a primordial creek, its majestic trees soar toward heaven. On a sticky summer day, its dappled shade is a tonic.

If I lived where the Witkowskis do, I'd swing in a hammock by the creek and marvel that, if not for the sounds of traffic on nearby Comly Road, I'd never know I was in the city.

Email: polaner@phillynews.com

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