AMONG THE THINGS Pepco long failed to do to properly maintain its system was trim and remove trees that threaten power lines. It’s now making up for lost time, but its effort has produced a backlash from some Montgomery County homeowners who think the utility is being overly aggressive, even vindictive, in pruning and removing trees. Local lawmakers who want to safeguard the county’s distinctive green canopy are right about the need for new protections. But they must tread carefully before enacting legislation.
Pepco, now subject to state regulation, would have to meet new requirements for tree and vegetation management under a bill proposed by County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and at-large member Marc Elrich (D). The measure, a reaction to citizen complaints that Pepco was unnecessarily removing and excessively pruning trees, will be aired at a public hearing June 12. Pepco has not taken a public stand, but the chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission has expressed concern about what he sees as another layer of rules. The commission — with full participation from Montgomery officials — just completed a painstaking overhaul of utility regulations with new standards for tree trimming.
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Pepco: Criticized for not doing enough to prevent power outages, it’s now under attack for doing too much. We don’t believe that the choice has to be between power and trees. For one, the role that trees play in Pepco’s problems with reliability was, as a 2010 Post investigation revealed, far smaller than that portrayed by the utility. And, as Mr. Berliner told us, there must be balance between doing what’s needed to provide quality service and ensuring the right of communities to a desired environment. Urban forestry is about harmony between the green infrastructure and the gray infrastructure, and Pepco has not always gotten it right.
Some aspects of the proposal do appear onerous. Is it really necessary to require written permission from property owners to prune private trees that threaten power lines when current practice (and the industry standard) provides for notification to property owners that gives them opportunity to refuse permission? And is it really a good use of Pepco resources to require it to remove tree stumps and fill in the holes?
But the legislation is on the right track in better informing, involving and empowering residents about plans for their neighborhoods. A provision requiring Pepco to submit its vegetation management plans to the county as well as the state and to allow residents to go to the county instead of the state with complaints seems eminently reasonable. There will be times that a tree — no matter how beautiful or beloved — will simply be the wrong tree in the wrong spot and have to come down. But before that’s decided, it would be nice to have someone advocating for the tree.