Alarmed by what they believe is an overzealous campaign by Pepco to clear tree limbs away from power lines, some residents of Barnaby Woods are trying to persuade the utility to reconsider the expanded tree-cutting policy it adopted after Hurricane Isabel.
Downed trees from that storm last year left thousands of District residents without power for days. Complaints eventually led a five-member commission to recommend that Pepco and other utility companies pursue a more aggressive trimming strategy. But when Pepco's chain saws came last week to Barnaby Woods -- one of the areas left in the dark last year, and one that is being targeted aggressively by the utility this year -- many residents balked.
"These are 100-year-old trees, and they're not dead or sick-looking," said Barbara Gray, who said five of seven oak trees on her block of Barnaby Street have been marked for removal. "It seems there must be a better way."
At a community meeting Tuesday evening, Gray and other neighborhood residents persuaded the city's Department of Transportation -- which has jurisdiction over trees on public land -- to stop work for 90 days. In addition, Pepco agreed to accompany residents on a walk-through of the area Saturday morning, according to those who attended the meeting. A company arborist will explain each trimming or removal decision, and an independent arborist also will participate and offer a second opinion.
Pepco officials also agreed to consider the feasibility of alternatives -- including the relocation of the power lines -- during the 90-day period.
Pepco stressed that all of its trims and tree removals are done with two things in mind: clearing trees from power lines, and making sure the trees stay healthy.
"When it comes to tree trimming, we're damned if we do, damned if we don't," Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said before the meeting. "It's always been the case that when the tree trimming trucks go into a neighborhood, they almost inevitably are met by some residents who plead with these guys to leave their trees alone. But this was also a neighborhood where we got a lot of complaints [during Isabel] because of loss of power."
Pepco's tree trimming budget increased this year to $10.3 million, up from about $8 million in 2003, Dobkin said. He said that during storms, downed trees cause 80 percent of the outages.
The company's more aggressive trimming strategy does not apply just to Barnaby Woods, but has been implemented throughout the D.C. area.
"We certainly have heard from a lot more residents regarding trimming and removal, so clearly Pepco has stepped up its activity and that has caused concern in a number of communities," said Jim Lyons, executive director of the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, which aims to protect and restore the city's tree canopy.
Michelle Pourciau, deputy director of the D.C. Division of Transportation, said many of the trees targeted for removal in Barnaby Woods are in good health. However, if more than 25 percent of a tree has to be trimmed to protect the power lines, the whole tree is removed because it probably would die anyway. Many of the trees slated for removal in Barnaby Woods fall into that category, she said.
Dobkin said Pepco informed residents about the cutting by distributing fliers, but Gray said the fliers warned of mere trimming and pruning -- not outright tree removal. Gray said she hopes the residents' actions can save the trees, even if that might mean an occasional power outage in the future.
"I just feel like we're being bamboozled," Gray said. "Once the trees are taken down, there's nothing we can do."
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who helped organize the meeting, also expressed concern. "People moved into this neighborhood in part because it's a community with large, healthy trees," Fenty said. "There's no question there needs to be aggressive tree trimming, but what they are talking about is actually cutting trees down and changing the character of the neighborhood."