Hazardous trees still a threat to Gig Harbor road

A fallen tree lies across a fence separating Borgen Boulevard NW (on the near side of the fence) from the site where Heron’s Key will be built in this Aug. 31, 2015 photo. An Aug. 29 windstorm knocked the tree down, killing Gig Harbor resident Jamie Fay, 36, as he drove home from Costco.
A fallen tree lies across a fence separating Borgen Boulevard NW (on the near side of the fence) from the site where Heron’s Key will be built in this Aug. 31, 2015 photo. An Aug. 29 windstorm knocked the tree down, killing Gig Harbor resident Jamie Fay, 36, as he drove home from Costco. Staff photographer

Weeks after a tree fell and killed a 36-year-old father of two in a windstorm, 15 other trees bordering Borgen Boulevard in Gig Harbor were reported as needing to be removed immediately because they are or would become hazard trees, according to an arborist’s report obtained by The News Tribune.

At least some of the marked trees were still standing Saturday.

Arborist Galen Wright inspected the site of the Heron’s Key development on Sept. 3, five days after the fatal treefall, and identified 26 trees damaged by the storm that should be removed, according to his report dated Sept. 25.

In his visits to the property before and after the storm, Wright identified a total of 150 trees that he said should be removed from the site of the future senior-living community. Not all those trees are located in areas that pose a danger to the public. In some cases the trees need to come down because future construction could compromise their stability. The 15 trees on Borgen are among the 150 identified by Wright.

The News Tribune was unable to determine from officials Friday whether any of the hazardous trees had been taken down since Wright’s report, although several standing trees in a protected buffer along Borgen were marked with orange paint, which signifies hazard trees.

Gig Harbor city policy requires an arborist’s report, a site visit with city staff and city approval before trees in protected areas can be removed. That approval was given on Thursday (Oct. 22), according to City Administrator Ron Williams.

Damaged trees located in non-buffer areas already approved for clearing could be cut at any time, said city planner Peter Katich.

City officials learned about the storm-damaged trees in an email Sept. 15, but didn’t receive Wright’s report from the developer until Oct. 20. Katich said last week that staff was reviewing it and working quickly to address it.

Meanwhile, officials have confirmed that the tree that killed Jamie Fay during the unseasonable Aug. 29 windstorm had been scheduled for removal as part of the Heron’s Key project, the largest development in city history.

The subcontractors responsible for logging the site “were in the middle of their operation. They weren’t done,” said Jon Rose, president of Olympic Property Group.

OPG had been hired to clear the 18-acre site on Borgen Boulevard in north Gig Harbor.

Fay was driving east on Borgen between the Olympus Way roundabout and the Peacock Hill roundabout when the Douglas fir toppled on his station wagon. Fay had just left Costco after a Saturday morning shopping trip with his 3-year-old daughter. The girl was not injured.

City of Gig Harbor officials interviewed by The News Tribune a few days after Fay’s death said they were uncertain whether the tree should have been removed or saved. The city required a 50-foot vegetative buffer along Borgen Boulevard. The tree was next to, but just outside, the fence line of that buffer.

Katich said last week there was no question the tree was coming down.

“We regulated certain trees on the site; we protected certain trees with fencing,” Katich said. “The tree that fell was not one of the regulated, protected trees.”

Katich said he didn’t know why it wasn’t removed at the same time as the majority of other trees on the site.

Initial clearing of the Heron’s Key property started Aug. 9 with limited tree removal. Larger-scale clearing resumed Aug. 17, according to Gig Harbor officials.

John Chadwell, vice president of land development for OPG, said clearing trees in large numbers has to happen in stages. That could explain why the tree that fell was left standing.

Work was also delayed at times because of equipment issues, he said.

“There were some days they were working and some days that they weren’t,” he said.

OPG is a subsidiary of timber company Pope Resources. It owned the roughly 20 acres of forested land before selling it to Redmond-based Emerald Communities in August. Emerald Communities is building Heron’s Key.

Chadwell said OPG was hired to clear the land so Emerald Communities could begin work immediately after taking ownership of the property.

OPG then hired Port Orchard-based RV Associates to clear the land; RV subcontracted with Peninsula Topsoil to do the logging. Representatives from RV Associates and Peninsula Topsoil did not immediately return a reporter’s calls last week.

After learning of Fay’s death, OPG reviewed how the site was cleared, Rose said.

“He didn’t damage the root system,” Rose said of the contractor. “I don’t think he did anything wrong. I think we had a really nasty storm and the tree fell and it was a tragedy.”

City of Gig Harbor officials and representatives from Emerald Communities took the same position two days after Fay’s death.

At the time, city officials said there were no plans to investigate how the site was cleared.

That didn’t sit well with the community or with Fay’s family, who hired local attorney John Ladenburg, Sr., to conduct an independent investigation.

Ladenburg, a former Pierce County executive and prosecuting attorney, was on the Heron’s Key site last Friday with an arborist he retained from California to inspect the fallen tree.

Gig Harbor hasn’t conducted a review of the clearing, but is cooperating with Ladenburg’s investigation.

An attorney for Emerald Communities said the company is also investigating.

“They’re taking this matter very seriously,” Seattle attorney Heather Jensen said.

In the days that followed the Aug. 29 windstorm, Emerald Communities sent Wright to inspect the remaining trees.

Additional trees were identified as damaged and pegged for removal, according to emails obtained by The News Tribune through a public records request.

A Sept. 15 email from Wright said hazardous trees needed to come down, including some wind-damaged trees and some previously marked for removal during the logging. He visited the site at least twice after the storm.

“Remember — there are a number of marked hazard trees within the tree protection buffers and other ‘save tree’ areas,” Wright wrote. “The current fences are in the way to get them out of there — these trees should have been removed during logging and land-clearing, then the tree protection fences should have gone up.”

At least one tree has been removed since the windstorm. The tree was also on the fence parallel to Borgen, not far from the tree that killed Fay.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467