The chain saws have quieted. Crews of tree-cutters, and the police summoned to protect them from angry homeowners, are largely gone. But scars from the year-long War of the Trees between Potomac residents and Pepco remain in plain view.
Once-leafy back yards along the utility’s transmission-line corridor are open to the sky and riddled with stumps. Piles of logs sit uncollected.
New battlefields await in Rockville, Olney, Silver Spring and elsewhere. And homeowners in Potomac who failed to stop the carnage in their neighborhoods say they will try anew this fall to spare other Montgomery County residents a similar fate.
“This is not finished,” said Howard Siemers, who lives in the Fallsreach subdvision. “We’ve lost the trees, but we’re going to continue to fight.”
A contingent of Potomac residents plans to appeal to Maryland’s Public Service Commission in September, hoping to persuade the regulatory board to force Pepco to moderate tree-trimming and -cutting practices that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of trees since last summer.
Pepco says it is simply following mandates from the commission to improve service reliability for its 800,000 Maryland and District customers after years of frequent and protracted outages.
But residents whose back yards have been stripped of trees say the utility is being overzealous and over-aggressive, relying on a decades-old easement unique to Potomac that gives the utility the right to cut down trees in private back yards — even though, according to at least some experts, trimming the branches could suffice.
“They can do whatever they want, wherever they want, and tough noogies,” said Fred Goodman, 72, an Air Force veteran and a small-business owner who returned to his Inverness Forest home last month after a business trip to find a dozen trees gone from his back yard. “I’ve never been so emotionally upset.”
Potomac homeowners have gone to court, enlisted the support of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and even stood under their trees to thwart the cutting. Nothing worked. Pepco insisted on sticking to the strict “vegetation management” strategy it had adopted to keep its 14,000 miles of overhead lines up and operating. It requires that its power lines have 15 feet of clearance from trees.
But Pepco has more latitude along its Bethesda-to-Germantown transmission corridor, a 13-mile-long, 250-foot-yard-wide swath of high- and lower-voltage lines that supply power to tens of thousands of customers.
Under easements granted more than a half-century ago, when these neighborhoods were mostly farmland, the utility can encroach up to 75 feet onto adjacent private properties to remove trees that its crews say could pose a threat to nearby power lines. The easements are not included on property deeds but are a part of county property records. Pepco generally needs permission to remove trees on public or private land.
The company’s far-reaching authority has led to some terrible surprises for homeowners along the transmission corridor in Potomac, which passes through a series of upper-middle-class subdivisions whose comfortable homes are almost modest compared with the multimillion-dollar mansions nearby on River Road.
Albert Wang returned to his house on Coppola Drive late one evening after a three-month visit with family in China and Taiwan. It was daylight before he saw what had happened in his back yard. Where there had stood nine pine trees and two maples that blazed fiery orange in the fall, eleven stumps remained.
“I escaped from China because there were no property rights there,” said Wang, 75, who was born in what was then the southwest city of Chungking now Chongqing. “I did not expect this would happen to us.”
Pepco hung a notice on Wang’s doorknob seven days before the trees were cut — a courtesy that was useless given that he was out of town. A letter sent to the house further in advance, he said, would have been forwarded to his son in California, who would have notified him. “I would have cut my trip short or had my son fly back,” Wang said.
Jerry Pasternak, Pepco’s region vice president for Maryland, said the company did everything it could to reach out to residents while working to meet the PSC’s higher expectations for service.
In November, PSC Chairman Kevin Hughes said the company showed “a good-faith effort to educate homeowners regarding the hazards presented by trees growing along the corridor.” Hughes said the utility’s provision of vouchers for residents to purchase replacement trees “goes beyond” state requirements.
But Potomac residents and some county officials contend that Pepco is trying to hack and slash its way to reliability. Leggett said he was stunned when homeowners showed him photos of their denuded yards.
“The level of cutback was overly aggressive, extremely aggressive,” Leggett said. “I thought the plan was too broad and needed to be scaled back.”
Leggett’s attempts to persuade Pepco to change its policies went nowhere, however. And state legislation sponsored by Montgomery lawmakers that would have toned down cutting protocols stalled during this year’s session.
Critics say Pepco is overstating the threat posed to power lines by overhanging or nearby trees. They cite a 2010 Washington Post analysis of Pepco records, which found that equipment failures, not trees, caused the most sustained power failures.
But other studies emphasize a clear link between foliage and the reliability of power supply. A federal investigation into the August 2003 blackout that hit parts of the Northeast and Ontario, Canada, for example, cited poor vegetation control by Ohio power companies as one of the causes.
“Trees and power lines don’t mix. I totally get that,” said Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda). But Pepco needs to become “less Paul Bunyan and more Johnny Appleseed,” he said, in its approach to cutting and trimming.
A major point of contention for homeowners is Pepco’s tendency to cut down entire trees. The company’s practice, based on tree industry standards, calls for removing an entire tree if more than 25 percent of its canopy would need to be cut to achieve the required 15 feet of clearance. Arborists say that once a tree has lost a quarter of its canopy, it is vulnerable to disease and decay, making it a threat to public safety.
But Ann Gallagher, a Bethesda arborist who has worked with Potomac homeowners, said Pepco has been overzealous in its application of that 25-percent standard. She said many trees removed by the utility “were healthy, lovely” and could have been saved.
Leggett said he plans to propose that the county hire its own arborist to consult with Pepco on future tree removals.
“We’ve got other communities where this is potentially going to be a problem,” he said.