Environmentalists, legislators,residents fight against UItrimming, removing trees
Clare Dignan Jan. 11, 2020 HAMDEN
A crew from Lewis Tree Service cut down a large sycamore tree during United Illuminatingtree trimming and removal on Grovers Avenue in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport in2015.
Photo: Hearst Connecticut Media file
HAMDEN — Environmental groups, legislators and residents all areobjecting to United Illuminating’s program aimed at trimming orremoving trees without consent from towns or residents.Under UI’s standard tree pruning/removal program — Utility
Protection Zone work — a property owner has the right to object totree work or ask to modify it, but the utility can remove the tree ifthe property owner doesn’t object, provided the utility has therequired permit from the municipality’s tree warden.
However, the law gives flexibility to utility companies to addresstrees coming into contact with wires or ones that show signs of burning.
State statute allows a utility company to forgo the permit requirement and notification to property owners when pruning orremoving a tree “if any part of a tree is in direct contact with anenergized electrical conductor or has visible signs of burning.
”The electric company, a subsidiary of Avangrid, cites the statute ona door hanger used specifically for these cases — the Targeted RiskManagement program — which it began in January of last year,according to Avangrid spokesman Ed Crowder.
UI’s standardvegetation management notification package includes options forconsent, objection and modification.Many objecting to the TRM program said the practice underminesthe municipal tree warden’s authority and doesn’t follow the spiritor intention of the exception.In letters to the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority — whichoversees the rates and services of utilities, hears complaints andreviews compliance — many are asking the agency stop UI fromimplementing the TRM program.“It takes away the right of the tree warden and the town to have anysay in what happens to our trees,” Hamden Alliance for Trees
member Diane Hoffman said.
State Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said in commentssubmitted to PURA that as one of the legislators primarilyresponsible for crafting the statute, the intent of the “directcontact” language wasn’t to allow utilities to circumvent notifyingproperty owners and tree wardens.
D’Agostino, along with state Reps. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, andJosh Elliot, D-Hamden, told PURA in a letter that the agencyshouldn’t allow UI to implement the program without evaluation orapproval since it’s intended for emergency situations.
“UI should not be the sole decider on tree removal withoutconsulting with tree wardens, town leaders or residents,” they saidin their letter. “UI has economic interest in removing as many treesas possible as quickly as possible, but this interest should not be thesole determining factor. The public also has an interest in bothaccess to reliable electricity as well as the benefits of having asmany healthy trees in their community as possible.
”Hamden recently ordered UI to stop all vegetation managementbecause of resident concerns.
No Tree Warden Oversight
Hamden’s consulting arborist Geoff Harris said the town wouldprefer to have eyes on all tree work. Harris said UI’s right toperform the work doesn’t mean it is doing so everywhere, but he’sskeptical.“They’re good guys trying to do the job correctly and the problemwe’re having is they have a limb on a wire and they want to do 8-10-
15 (clearance pruning), and if they want to do that they have to talkto me,” he said. “I want to be able to see the tree first and that’s thebottom line.”
Harris said the new specifications have caused a problem in whichcrews are asked to trim everything in utility protection zone, whichisn’t a good arborist practice.
Fairfield Tree Warden Jeff Minder said trees are part of a town’sinfrastructure and especially important to Fairfield. If utilities arepruning without consultation of a municipality’s arborist, the crewcould be leaving the tree aesthetically unappealing or structurallyunhealthy, he said.
“We definitely welcome the trimming program but we’d like it to betransparent,” Minder said. Without consultation with residents ortree wardens, UI will set the pruning standard and do what’snecessary to get the line clearance, he said.
Minder said he doesn’t have reason to believe that they’ll only trimwhat’s necessary and if they take to much, the tree will suffer.
As a full-time tree warden, Minder makes a point to walk with theidentifying crews during their regular circuits — and each time, theypropose a lot of work that Minder said isn’t necessary.
“They have one goal in mind — it’s to get utility line clearance,” hesaid. “They don’t care about neighborhood aesthetics, if your houseis in full sun all day, if there’s erosion on roadsides. These things arewhat a tree warden has to look at.”
David Goodson, UI’s director of vegetation management, told PURAthey send crews out to prune trees to a “four-year clearance” of 8 feet to the side, 10 feet below, and 15 feet overhead.
Fairfield has been a designated Tree City USA for nearly 32 years, arecognition of the city’s tree stewardship and urban foresteducation. In 2019 when UI rolled out TRM, Minder said they didn’tpropose any regular tree trimming, but wanted to do 24 miles ofTRM work, which the town refused.
“We’re not against UPZ (Utility Protection Zone) or direct contactprogram,” Minder said. “It needs to take place, but you need toinclude the tree warden.
”Mary Hogue, chairwoman of the Fairfield Forestry Committee, saidshe’s concerned that two customer rate increases have beenapproved specifically for tree trimming, yet Fairfield ratepayersdidn’t see any scheduled work done last year.“We’re convinced the work needs to happen and that there areplenty of roadside trees that need to be removed,” she said. “Thetree trimming needs to happen and is essential, but it needs to bedone with an arborist’s eye.”
Crowder said UI is simply trying to prevent hazards before theybecome problems.
“When we see a danger spot, we address it instead of waiting forthe next trim cycle.” he said. “We have an obligation to provide safeand reliable service.”
Last year, UI did TRM work on about 285 miles of distributioncircuit out of about 3,500 miles, prioritizing circuits with poor
reliability performance farthest away from scheduled routinemanagement, he said.
When asked why the utility is proposing this work withoutconsulting with the tree wardens, Crowder said, “We haveobligation to maintain the safety and reliability of our system andour customers expect us to do that on an ongoing basis.”
Crowder said crews are not taking down trees under this program.In January 2014, UI began the Utility Protection Zone program toestablish a clearance zone extending 8 feet horizontally andground-to-sky vertically around all of its primary distribution lines,according to the last vegetation management plan submitted toPURA. The authority approved $100 million for the 8-yearvegetation management plan, which was piloted in Hamden,Milford, Orange and Shelton.Then the authority approved a $162 million, 12-year plan, extendingthe program to 2025. UI said the increase was needed to fund theescalating costs of municipal traffic control, the consent andobjection process and rising costs of tree work.In UI’s vegetation management report to PURA, the utility saidcompliance with the legislation governing tree trimmingnotifications “has a negative impact on crew productivity andschedule completion because of the disruption it causes to the planand subsequent flow of work.”Utilities are allowed to pass along tree-trimming costs to ratepayersif they can prove to PURA the expenses are justified.
Crowder said UI has seen consistently strong results in reductionsof outages over time.“We’re proud of UI’s excellent record of reliability, which ranks nearthe top in our industry,” he said. “This reflects UI’s proactiveapproach to upgrading and maintaining its system, including itsrobust vegetation management program.”UI circuits that have undergone UPZ clearance show a 65 percentimprovement — fewer interruptions — in day-to-day reliability from2015 through 2018, compared with just 9 percent improvement forthose that did not undergo UPZ clearance.Crowder said he didn’t know of customer satisfaction surveyscollected on tree work.
Benfits of an Urban Forest
Street trees can provide benefits far beyond neighborhoodbeautification, according to the Arbor Day foundation. Trees canprovide energy savings for heating and cooling, tame stormwaterrunoff, mitigate erosion and combat climate change.Hoffman said trees are one of the main nature-based solutions tothe climate crisis.Yale School of Forestry Urban Resources Initiative Director ColleenMurphy-Dunning works hand-in-hand with New Haven to plantmore street trees with consideration of species diversity, ecologicalbenefits and utility line safety.They plant about 500 trees every year in the city, employing theRight Tree Right Place practice that involves planting smaller,
ornamental trees under utility lines that won’t grow too tall whenfully mature. Across the street from utility lines they can plant tallershade trees so that they avoid the conflict cities have today withutilities, she said.“The practice has been Right Tree Right Place, but there are treesthat are tall and healthy planted under the lines and it’s OK,” shesaid. “If you have healthy tall trees they bring so much benefit.”Beyond beautification, URI estimates that New Haven’s street treessave the city about $4 million per year.
An appeal to PURA
Others in UI’s service territory are equally concerned. TheGreenwich Tree Conservancy, a local nonprofit that promotes thepreservation and enhancement of the tree and forest resources,oppose the program “because it offers convenience toConnecticut’s utilities at the expense of citizens, local publicofficials and our communities.”Eric Hammerling, Connecticut Forest & Park Association executivedirector, served as chairman of the State Vegetation ManagementTask Force and said the program would circumvent the publicnotice requirement that ensures vegetation management workconsiders landowner and community interests.Hammerling said when legislators discussed amendments to thelaw, utility companies asked to include the direct contact provisionso they could quickly respond to emergency situations. He said themeasure made sense at the time to everyone, but with the TRMprogram, UI appears to be using an intended ‘emergency measure’
as the basis for much of its planned work in some of its territory.Crowder said the utility considers an emergency to be when thelights are out or there are live wires on the ground.“We don’t want to wait for that to happen,” he said. “The statuteallows UI to address these threats proactively and expediently aspart of its obligation to provide safe and reliable service.”email@example.com