As Trees Fall, So Do Feelings

Columbia Gas removed dozens of trees. "We want good relations with the people who live along the right of way. But we also want to operate a safe pipeline," company spokesman Kelly Merritt said.
Columbia Gas removed dozens of trees. "We want good relations with the people who live along the right of way. But we also want to operate a safe pipeline," company spokesman Kelly Merritt said. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Each fall, the narrow stand of trees behind Carleen Basik's home would erupt in such spectacular color that she couldn't resist snapping a few photographs for posterity.

Now, photos are all she has left of the maples, poplars and Virginia pines that surrounded her home. Last week, Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. cut down dozens of trees in her Reston subdivision to clear out a swath of land where its pipelines lie. Almost 60 trees were cut down in Basik's yard alone, transforming her woodsy back yard into a leaf-strewn field. Her neighbors' homes stand nakedly beyond it.

Columbia Gas was within its rights to strip the 100-foot right of way, which officials said was necessary to protect the trio of natural gas pipelines that runs through the area on the way to homes and businesses across the Washington area. The utility obtained easements on the property more than 50 years ago, long before the former farmland was diced up into planned communities and one-acre suburban plots.

But that was little solace to Basik and many of the 30 Reston property owners affected by the tree-clearing, who say Columbia Gas's actions have left them feeling violated and helpless.

"Every window used to look like a picture postcard," said Basik, 55, who hired a lawyer and took time off work in an attempt to fend off the "tree massacre," as she calls it. "Now it looks like a war zone. I feel like I'm in a fishbowl. And I don't want to live here anymore."

The situation illustrates the dilemma of neighborhoods across the United States, where everybody wants energy but no one wants to live near the power plant that generates it or the pipeline that delivers it. The problem is exacerbated by the perception that utilities disregard landowners' concerns for the sake of money, and by exploiting political connections.

Farther west, residents in rural parts of Northern Virginia have spent millions of dollars over two years unsuccessfully fighting Dominion Virginia Power's plan to build a high-voltage power line there. The electric utility also encountered opposition in southwest Virginia, where it is building a coal plant. Disputes over tree-clearing in gas and electric rights of way have played out from Arlington to Loudoun.

In each case, utilities have sought to show that their projects are for the greater good. Dominion, for instance, has long said that demand for electricity in Virginia is outpacing the system's ability to deliver it. They have said they try to site their projects where they will cause the least impact on communities.

In the case of Columbia Gas, which operates 12,000 miles of pipeline through 10 states, the tree-clearing is necessary to prevent tree roots from damaging the gas lines and to clear the way in case maintenance is needed, company officials said.

Moreover, homeowners were notified of the easement when they bought their houses, spokesman Kelly Merritt said. They were warned weeks in advance that their trees would be cut down. Company officials even met with homeowners at the request of Fairfax County officials and slightly scaled back their plans as a result of the discussion, he added.

"We want to avoid situations where we get people upset," he said. "We want good relations with the people who live along the right of way. But we also want to operate a safe pipeline."

The county's and the residents' hands are tied, said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who represents Reston on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

"Some neighbors have accepted it," Hudgins said. "Some people are very, very upset by it, and understandably so. I always remind people you need to be cognizant of your deed and recognize that if the easement prohibits you from putting plantings out there, then you have to adhere to it."

Basik and others said they were aware of the easement but did not realize it was so broad. Until last week, it was represented by a narrow meadow that sliced through the wooded area. Residents said they even mowed the grass to keep it tidy. But Merritt said some of the trees that flanked the grassy area were coming dangerously close to the outer pipelines, with as little as two feet separating them in some places.

Residents say they don't understand why the trees were allowed to grow in the first place. A few were planted by residents after the subdivision was established about 15 years ago. But the vast majority had been in place -- some for decades, judging by their soaring height.

At a meeting last month with Columbia Gas, residents lobbied the company to study whether the tree roots were actually posing a threat to the gas line before chopping them down. But the chain saws began buzzing less than a month afterward. The company's disregard for the neighborhood's wishes was "profoundly disrespectful," said Bob Seitz, 61, whose house is now starkly visible from the Basiks' back deck.

The denuded landscape is a depressing sight, especially after such a brilliantly colorful fall show, Seitz said.

"We're mad about it; we're going to get over it and we're going to move on," he said. "But it didn't need to happen."

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