A Pepco contractor works in North Bethesda clearing branches overhanging lines in December 2010. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

The public debate has started on a controversial Montgomery County bill aimed at the area’s largest power company and its aggressive tree-trimming practices.

The bill would impose more stringent reliability standards for electric companies operating in Maryland and require them to obtain permission from homeowners before pruning on private property. More than 20 residents and community activists testified at a public hearing on the bill Tuesday night.

The legislation was drafted after Pepco decided to devote unprecedented resources to trimming and removing trees that have compromised power lines during major storms in recent years.

Some residents say the company is removing — or crudely trimming — too many trees. Council officials say they receive near-daily complaints about tree-trimming.

At a public hearing Tuesday, Pepco and some rural residents testified that the bill is overly burdensome. David Weitzer, chairman of the county’s agricultural advisory committee, said the county should “work with and not against” Pepco.

“They should stay out of the way of utility companies and let them do their job in obtaining electrical service we all depend on,” he said.

But other residents reaffirmed their opposition to Pepco’s trimming techniques. One supporter of the bill, Judy Koenick, described the company as the “butcher of Montgomery County.”

“Obviously dead or dying branches overhanging power lines need to be removed,” added Ken Bawer, a member of the Maryland Native Plant Society board. “But Pepco’s contractors have devastated [much of the] tree canopy.”

Jerry Pasternak, a regional vice president for Pepco and a well-known political figure in the county, testified that from 2010 to 2011, customers affected by the increased tree work have seen about a 40 percent drop in the average number of power outages. In addition, the average time during each outage has decreased about 55 percent, he said.

Pasternak added that the bill, if passed, would “dramatically” slow down tree-trimming and wouldn’t change the company’s trimming policies.

According to an internal county memo obtained by The Washington Post on Wednesday, county attorney Marc Hansen believes that parts of the the bill aimed at utilities could be preempted by state law. But if the bill were to be amended to apply to all parties interested in trimming trees, as opposed to simply utilities, the preemption could be avoided, he wrote in the memo.

Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who introduced the bill, said in an interview Wednesday that he thinks Hansen’s concerns can be addressed, but he has not yet made any plans to introduce amendments.

A county council committee will review the bill at a meeting June 21.