Who is responsible for paying to remove downed private trees after a storm?

Residents in many Ontario communities are still cleaning up after a major storm moved across the province. However, some are asking questions about who is responsible for paying when a private tree causes damage. Nick Westoll reports.

As residents in many Ontario communities continue to clean up after Saturday’s storm, neighbours have been dealing with an emerging issue: Who is responsible for paying for damage when private trees fall?

Marsha Serrette and her husband William Fraser were heading back to their Ajax home when Saturday’s intense storm moved through Scarborough. They said the hail and the wind gusts were so intense that they needed to pull off the road for a while. The couple said their son messaged them to tell them about the damage.

When the couple got home, they were one of many who had to deal with considerable damage caused by a tree limb that snapped seemingly as easily as a match stick.

“When I looked at it I didn’t think the tree was that large to begin with and now seeing that basically that chunk of the tree is sitting in about half my yard, it’s quite sizeable,” Fraser said.

The top of the tree came within six to eight feet of their house, which is lived in by three generations of the family.

Serrette and Fraser said they spoke with the nearby homeowner whose property where the tree fell from. They said the resident consulted with their insurance company and got bad news.

“We are now going to be the ones covering the cost of the removal of this tree,” Fraser said.

“As homeowners who don’t own a tree, I was shocked to find out this is how it works that if a storm happens and the tree falls on your property you are responsible now for the damage on your property and I just think for insurance purposes I think it’s unfair,” Serrette added.

The couple contacted CityNews frustrated by this development. CityNews contacted the Insurance Bureau of Canada to ask about the fairness of this requirement.

“If a neighbour’s tree falls on your property, your insurance company will pay to remove that tree. If your neighbour’s tree damages your fence, your insurance will kick in,” Anne Marie Thomas, the organization’s director of consumer and industry relations, told CityNews on Thursday, adding there’s no legal obligation for neighbours to pay the affected resident’s deductible either.

“This is the simple way of making sure that policyholders get put back into the position as quickly as possible rather than disputes over ‘it’s your tree, it’s your tree.’”

Saturday’s storm moved through much of southern and eastern Ontario and into Quebec. Eleven people died and in Uxbridge, not far from the couple’s home, an EF-2 tornado touched down. Tens of thousands in Ottawa were left without power for days.

Thomas said the storm has since been declared a catastrophic insurance-related event.

“Your insurance would cover from this event that happened on Saturday. Severe wind knocking over a tree … I can’t see an insurance company increasing anyone’s rate for just that one incident,” she said.

RELATED: EF-2 tornado touchdown confirmed in Uxbridge, recovery efforts ongoing

Thomas said the Insurance Bureau of Canada has additional resources for anyone who is struggling to navigate making insurance claims.

She encouraged people to do an “insurance check-up” and speak with their insurance brokers to find out if they have the appropriate coverage, especially as it relates to extreme weather.

“It can be very costly and particularly in an emergency situation because you’re having people coming out weekends, evenings, and there’s a fee associated. The clean-up costs for these kind of events can be very expensive,” Thomas said.

When it comes to removing downed trees, be prepared to be patient.

“It’s been just this non-stop flow of calls into our office — trees down on houses, power lines, roadways, cars, it’s been a huge amount of damage,” Tait Sala, a certified arborist with Cohen & Master Tree and Shrub Services, said.

Sala said the company is working as quickly as they can to respond to issues raised by customers, but added it could take up to three weeks to deal with the more pressing tree removal issues and months to fully clear the backlog of requests.

He said homeowners have an obligation to keep trees safe and they need to make sure trees on their property are in good condition. Sala said if someone has a safety concern, they should first try to talk to their neighbour. If that’s not possible, he encouraged people to check with their local municipality as many have private tree maintenance bylaws.

“Once the tree falls onto your property… it could have originated three properties over … any portion of the tree on your property that’s now on your property, that’s your problem to deal with. So you’re going to have to hire a contractor to come and have that cleaned up, have that removed safely,” Sala said.

He also noted if a tree trunk is on a shared property line — even as little as an inch — all affected property owners share equal costs.

Sala said if a tree branch hangs over your property, you might be allowed under your local bylaws to cut that branch (such as in Toronto). However, there are risks with that. If the homeowner causes injury to the tree or kills it, they could potentially face civil legal action or a fine if there are tree preservation bylaws.

He said another issue with haphazardly removing branches is that it can affect counterbalancing with the tree and potentially cause what’s left to fall over, calling on people to consult with arborists.

With more turbulent weather likely this year, Sala made this plea to homeowners.

“Now is not the time to rush out and start cutting down all our trees. Just because a tree is tall and has a full canopy doesn’t mean that tree is hazardous. We need our urban trees,” he said.

“One of the things that made this so catastrophic one how widespread the storm was but two the fact the trees had just leafed out, suddenly all the foliage is on the tree so you have these huge sails that are getting hit by the wind and that’s going exploit all those defects that are in the trees.”

Meanwhile, back in Ajax, Serrette and Fraser said their neighbours have stepped up and they’re all working together to clear the debris. But they had some advice for others after what they discovered.

“We’re thankful it wasn’t a worse scenario and doesn’t have a worse ending,” Fraser said.

“Make sure that your insurance is up-to-date, know how to get a hold of your insurance provider and … definitely have a good relationship with your neighbours.”

Update on storm-related calls for downed trees in Toronto

CityNews asked the City of Toronto for an update on storm-related clean-up efforts. A spokesperson said in a statement municipal crews have received more than 4,000 reports of damage to trees as of Thursday morning.

“Forestry crews with the City of Toronto continue to efficiently use all the resources available to undertake storm clean-up efforts. Efforts include reallocating work to focus on storm response and longer work hours,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Given the storm’s severity, it may take several weeks to complete non-emergency clean-up work. All immediate hazards remain a priority and will be addressed soon as possible.”

The spokesperson added tree branch debris will be collected during waste collection if the branches are tied into bundles and left at the curbside.

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