When the bright orange trucks returned to her neighborhood of Kemp Mill Estates, Maria Honeycutt knew to expect weeks of tree-trimming. The familiar vehicles were manned by Asplundh Tree Expert and contracted by Pepco to cut down branches and limbs snaking through overhead power lines.
Honeycutt, 43, had “applauded” past efforts by Pepco to reduce power outages in Silver Spring, especially after her family had lost power for five days following the 2012 derecho, one of the most destructive thunderstorms ever to sweep through the D.C. area.
But this time, Honeycutt was shaken by the “butchering” of her neighborhood’s maples and oaks.
Workers cut down healthy branches nowhere near the power lines, she said, but ignored dead limbs hovering dangerously over the sidewalk. A geologist who has lived in her home for 12 years, Honeycutt sternly challenged the Asplundh workers on which limbs they were pruning until the crew summoned its cherry picker down from above and moved to the next house.
“I expect some not-so-beautiful trees among the power lines, and I want power and am willing to accept that,” Honeycutt said. “But when they left these lonesome branches over the street, it’s particularly jarring to see what’s no longer there.”
Pepco, which serves customers in the District and the Maryland suburbs, has worked for years to increase service reliability.
A 2010 analysis by The Washington Post found that the average Pepco customer endured 70 percent more outages than users of other utilities in major cities who took part in a 2009 survey.
Tens of thousands lost power for days that year after snowstorms in February and thunderstorms in July. After the June 2012 derecho, Pepco reported 420,000 customers without electricity — more than half of the 778,000 homes and businesses the company served.
Among the main culprits: trees.
“We are executing our most comprehensive reliability plan in our history,” said Jerry Pasternak, Pepco’s region vice president. “A major component of that reliability effort is the vegetation management that includes pruning trees and removing trees in order to maintain clearance from the power lines.”
Five years ago, the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates Pepco, adopted new quality and reliability standards that included protocols for tree-trimming.
Pasternak said the first step of the process is to have an arborist inspect trees along power lines and identify those that need to be pruned or removed. After Asplundh completes the job, Pepco returns to inspect the site.
On July 26, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) sent a letter to Pasternak questioning the “aggressive tree maintenance work” in Kemp Mill Estates.
It was not the first time he has raised concerns about the issue with Pepco. In 2015, homeowners in Potomac complained bitterly when the utility company clear-cut hundreds of trees from residents’ back yards in the name of maintaining power.
Berliner said the council has tried to pass legislation that would give the county control over how its trees are trimmed but has met pushback from the Public Service Commission.
“We have literally no authority other than that of persuasion,” Berliner said, adding that Pepco should be able to address reliability “in a way that is sensitive to the trees and the community.”
On July 27, Pasternak responded to Berliner’s letter saying he had driven in the neighborhood to see Asplundh’s work firsthand. In the letter, Pasternak said Pepco was willing to meet with customers to address specific concerns.
Joshua Schwartz, 65, who has lived in Kemp Mill Estates since 1980, says he remembers when the county planted a tree at the front of his lawn 20 years ago.
He questioned the decision to place an oak — “which are supposed to grow straight and tall” — directly beneath his street’s power lines.
One day in July, Asplundh cut out the healthy, central limbs of the tree. The oak no longer reaches the highest power lines run by Pepco, but its branches do wrap around a thick, black cable Schwartz says is managed by Verizon. He says the cable company has done nothing about the branches despite a number of complaints.
“You have Pepco being too aggressive because they really don’t want more outages, and you have Verizon and they don’t care,” Schwartz said. “If you think about it, none of this problem would have happened if they planted a cherry or a crab apple tree.”
Rick Quinn, 65, has called Kemp Mill Estates home since 1960. He said he understands and appreciates Pepco’s reliability concerns but worries that, someday soon, one of the branches left dangling by the trimming will cause damage or injury.
Honeycutt said she considered calling Pepco or the county to register her complaint directly, but the damage had already been done.
“This is our neighborhood,” she said. “We live here, my children are growing up here, and look at what you are leaving behind for us to look at everyday. It’s awful.”