Montgomery County Council challenges Pepco’s tree-pruning practices

July 18, 2011

If a tree falls in Montgomery County, it sure makes a lot of noise.

A County Council committee on Monday used Pepco’s request for expanded authority to trim trees on private property as an opportunity to once again upbraid the utility. For two and a half hours, council members challenged the company’s pruning practices, saying Pepco’s aggressive tree trimming isn’t going to solve the underlying weaknesses in the utility's transmission system.

“I don’t believe that our citizens are standing in your way of achieving improvements in your system long overdue,” said Council Vice President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee.

“And what I have resented about this conversation from the get-go is for a utility that so under-invested in its system for so long, and for our people to endure the kind of service we have endured, for you to say, ‘And now we need you to do more for us.’ ”

Aggressively removing dead or dying trees, which the company says cause 90 percent of power outages during storms like January’s blizzard, is part of Pepco’s new five-year, $250 million effort to improve its service. Since September, Pepco has trimmed trees along more than 1,800 miles of power lines.

The company is allowed to trim trees in the county’s right of way, but to trim trees on private property requires the permission of the owner. In about 300 cases, the utility says, landowners have refused. Pepco is seeking legislation that would have dead or dying trees declared a public nuisance, giving the company a recourse to remove trees it considers risky even when private-property owners object.

“People love their trees — I live in your district; I love my trees as well — but on the other side, we have an obligation to provide reliable service,” Pepco spokesman Charles Washington said at the hearing.

One landowner who refused Pepco’s request was Caroline Taylor, who for 20 years has lived outside Poolesville in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. She said Pepco has asked her for permission to remove trees on her property many times, but in June she refused because she was appalled by the recent cutting in her area.

“I saw trees that were cut back over 25 percent, daring them to live. I saw trees cut to the ground that had living and full canopies. I saw trees cut on the opposite side of the street,” said Taylor, who testified Monday as director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance. “And I asked myself, did I trust these crews to come onto my property and cut my trees, and the answer was no.”

Taylor showed photographs of the sawdust-strewn remains of a hackberry tree that Pepco cut down last month near her land. She said the tree was 147 years old. In response to environmentalists’ and residents’ complaints about the incident, Pepco stopped removing trees last month in protected parts of the county’s northern region.

The council members said residents have been surprised by the drastic prunings because Pepco, which serves 778,000 customers in the District and suburban Maryland, had neglected tree maintenance for years and was “playing catch-up.”

“You guys got us into this situation and now you’re asking the government to give you more power and provide more of our precious resources to correct the course,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “I just think that’s hard to swallow.”

Berliner pointed out that Pepco did not have the authority it was requesting in Prince George’s County or the District. The company has said that Montgomery landowners have been less cooperative and that its public-nuisance proposal could be a model for other jurisdictions.

The council members were less interested in Pepco’s proposal than in working with arborists to devise “best practices” for tree trimming. Pepco’s representatives said the company assesses each tree individually according to industry standards.

After the meeting, Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson said the company would collaborate with the council and community groups to develop best practices.

“I don’t think we felt it was contentious. We thought it was informative,” he said. “We did not want customers to feel like this is Pepco without any supervision because that is not the case.”

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