Neighbors, district scramble after tree on school’s property falls on 3 cars

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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After some confusion, and no small amount of consternation, three Vancouver residents will not be on the hook to pay for the damage after part of an oak tree at Sacajawea Elementary School crashed on their parked cars.

Gregory Nelson rents a home with his wife and a roommate on Northeast 112th Street, across the street from the school’s front entrance and parking lot in the Felida neighborhood.

At around 2:40 p.m. Sept. 4, Labor Day, a huge branch snapped from the tree, near its base. Nelson, who drives a garbage truck, and his wife and roommate were all home at the time, he said. His wife saw the thick, low branching trunk come down on their three cars.

The school’s staff, especially Principal Travis Bond, he said, was extremely helpful.

“He was one of the first people out there when it happened,” Nelson said. “He’s been nothing but helpful, doing everything he can. But at this point, there’s really nothing he can do.”

Initially, he said, the school district felt a bit less responsive.

“It was frustrating, to say the least,” he said.

Nelson said the district initially told him that because the tree showed no prior evidence of rot, which caused the branch to fall, its lawyers and insurance apparently said it is not required to pay for the damage.

But after some more checking and more calls, the district changed its tune, he said.

“They can’t accept responsibility for it, but after calls and deciding to take a second look at it, they want to try to help us in any way they can,” he said.

The district was still working on a plan Monday, but Nelson said it was going to try helping allay some of the cost.

Nelson was frustrated initially. That there might be rules or laws that mean the district isn’t responsible was understandable, he said, but a property owner’s trees seem, to him, like a property owner’s responsibility.

“It’s the right thing to do if it’s on your property,” he said.

Three cars, a 2016 Toyota Camry, a 2014 Toyota Corolla and 2015 Toyota Sienna were damaged, he said.

The total damage wasn’t yet clear, he said.

The Camry saw about $9,000 to $11,000 in damage; about $11,000 for the Corolla and about $4,000 for the Sienna, he said.

The vehicles are insured, he said. It appeared his household’s insurance will still have to pay for the repairs, but there was still a question of the $1,500 deductible to pay out of pocket.

“Sadly enough, the Sienna and the Corolla we only got on July 3, I think,” he said.

Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Amanda Richter said it’s taking time for the district to determine its exact course.

To her knowledge, something like this hasn’t happened before, so there isn’t much of a script for the district to follow.

“We’re continuing to work with our insurance company and Mr. Nelson to resolve this issue within our legal and liability constraints. We hope that we can quickly reach a satisfactory resolution for everyone involved,” she said.

An arborist checked out the campus’ other trees nearby, she said, and the district was also waiting on his findings.

“We take our role in the community seriously,” Richter said. “The community has always supported us, and we want to make sure we’re good community members in return.”

The three vehicles were about 25 to 30 feet away from the tree, Nelson said, “so we just got the edge of what came down.”

All three cars still weren’t driveable Monday, he said.

What really spooked Nelson was the thought of that tree falling during school, when there are children on the street and cars coming and going from campus.

“It wasn’t a small chunk,” he said.