Greensboro, Duke Energy attempt to sort out tree ordinance

by Eric Ginsburg

The e-mails keep coming, every day, and it’s not from a few overzealous residents. It’s been months since community outrage at Duke Energy’s tree trimming line maintenance work boiled over, but Greensboro Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan said the e-mails haven’t stopped.

“People certainly are still very passionate about this issue,” Vaughan said.

Council established a work team including residents, city staff and representatives of Duke Energy to try and hammer out a tree ordinance that all parties would find agreeable and that would protect against what many residents said were extreme cuts. Vaughan, who chairs an ad-hoc council subcommittee on trees, said things have progressed.

“I think we’re getting a little closer,” she said. “We still have a couple of weeks to work with them and reach an agreement, but if that doesn’t happen we will still move forward.”

The tree subcommittee met last week and will meet once more on March 21 before the city council votes on a proposed ordinance on April 2. Public interest in the issue hasn’t only been evident through the volume of e-mails council members have received; nearly 30 people showed up to last week’s subcommittee meeting and several residents spoke about their support for a strong tree ordinance.

“I’m feeling a little uneasy despite all the work that’s going on here,” Westerwood neighborhood resident Jack Jezorek said at the meeting. “I guess I’m feeling a little bullied. It’s a little bit of a David and Goliath going on here. I believe we can have safe and reliable energy… and our trees.”

Jezorek was just one of several residents, most of them from Westerwood, who urged council to push back against a perceived uncooperative stance from Duke Energy. Residents were wary that some of the proposed changes that Duke and the city agreed on, such as better communication with residents, would be meaningless without restrictions on the tree trimming itself.

Ellen Haskell said previous material warning residents of trimming was “misleading” and that people had trusted the work would be more akin to pruning rather than hacking or tree removal.

“It’s fundamentally changed the characteristic of the neighborhood,” she said at the meeting.

Vaughan said after the meeting that one of the most important aspects of improved communication wasn’t between Duke Energy and residents, but between Duke and Asplundh. Without a change in practice, forewarning of residents wouldn’t constitute enough change.

“Communication would be nice, but as was stated in the meeting, if you’re going to communicate with us that you’re going to do what you want in 30 days that’s not much good to us,” Vaughan said.

Residents also raised concerns that Duke communicated with its customers, who in many cases are renting, and not the property owners who could be left in the dark about trimming.

Emilie Sandin, who thanked council for being champions of their cause, said the key issue was pruning frequency and floated the idea of aerial bundled conductors, a consolidated method of electrical distribution she said she discovered on Wikipedia.

At the end of the meeting, Duke Energy district manager Davis Montgomery told Sandin he had never heard of the technology. Montgomery said later he hadn’t heard back from Duke staff about the conductors but noted that Sandin found the information on Wikipedia rather than an industry-related website. Like other Duke representatives, Montgomery was wary of a more frequent trimming cycle like one proposed in the draft ordinance but said the work team is making progress.

“I think so far it’s gone well,” he said.

“It takes a while to work through the thinking and reasons behind those [reasons]. We’re putting every effort in there to do the best we can given the parameters we both have to work in.”

While it was unlikely that an ordinance could ever make all residents happy, Montgomery said it was good to be involved in the process and hear people’s feelings on the issue.

A draft ordinance that has been passed between Greensboro City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan and Kendrick Fentress, an associate general counsel for Duke, included a proposed four-year trimming cycle but was rejected by Duke as unnecessary and possibly illegal. Duke Energy currently trims about every 10 years, and proponents of the change say the more frequent trimming would lead to less severe cuts.

“This proposed cycle may pose safety risks to the citizens of Greensboro and cause reliability of service to North Carolina customers to suffer,” Fentress wrote on Feb. 20 without elaborating on how. “[Duke Energy] has committed to increase the frequency of its trimming in urban areas, and it is seeking approval of the additional funds necessary to do so in its recently-filed rate case in North Carolina.”

Despite the possible increased frequency in urban areas, Fentress said the four-year trimming cycle could violate the state’s general statutes prohibiting “any unreasonable difference as to rates or services” and would constitute “special treatment.”

Fentress could not be reached for the article but Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Layne echoed Fentress’ statement that there was nothing to indicate the more frequent cycle would improve reliability or safety, which is Duke’s legal mandate. Layne said she trusted that the collaboration could come up with an ordinance that would meet these needs and maintain the city’s tree canopy, but said she didn’t want to speculate on whether the fouryear trim cycle would be included in a final draft.

Another major sticking point between the two parties is the city’s ability to regulate Duke Energy’s actions on private property, which is the source of residents’ concerns. Vaughan and other council members are interested in modeling Greensboro’s ordinance after Raleigh’s and extending provisions to protect trees to private property, but it is unclear what — if any — compromise can be reached with Duke.

Montgomery, Fentress and Layne focused on the fact that many proposed changes would be costly for Duke and would be passed on to customers throughout the state, something they said had to be balanced with state regulations, shareholders’ interests and other customers. The draft ordinance initially requested that Duke grind stumps left when a tree was cut and to dispose of debris.

“We do not agree that our customers in other areas should bear the increased costs related to the city’s request that Duke Energy grind stumps and alter its debris removal procedures,” Fentress wrote on March 1. “We do agree, however, to work with property owners and residents to find ways to dispose of debris and unwanted wood.”

Layne said she was unsure about the specifics of what ways Duke Energy would be willing to pursue and said she would look into it.

“Debris removal is additional cost,” she said. “We don’t want to do the additional cost to put in a debris removal program.”

The cost of stump and debris removal is currently in limbo as the city tries to figure out how to help people who have already had branches cut or trees chopped down. The clean-up cost of Duke’s trimming is already defrayed to local property owners, and some residents said Duke didn’t necessarily have to charge consumers more for increased services.

“From what I read, Duke Energy is a very profitable company so it really depends on how they choose to treat their customers,” Vaughan said. “We all want to make money, but at what expense?” In a recent video by environmental group NC Warn, Director Jim Warren decried Duke Energy’s control in the state, pointing to Gov. Pat McCrory’s decades working for the company and recent rate hikes. Warren said Senate Bill 10 would let the governor “stack” the state utility commission, which approves rate hikes, with Duke proponents. NC Warn, like other organizations in the state including Occupy Greensboro, have been critical of Duke’s profit margin and attempts to pass the buck to consumers.

Layne said it was easy for outsiders to suggest that Duke absorb the cost but said the company has a responsibility to look out for its shareholders as well.

“A lot of people in their mind when they think of a shareholder they think of a Wall Street banker,” Layne said. “Many of them are retirees, or may be people like you. We want to do right by the citizens there. That’s why we’re working so hard to stay in this collaboration.”

One of the company’s primary goals, Layne said, was to avoid unintended consequences of an ordinance that wasn’t thoroughly thought out.

“It needs to be about something more than aesthetics,” she said. “There needs to be more components.”

After a major ice storm in 2002, when fallen trees and branches caused widespread power outages, Layne said the NC Utilities Commission recognized that restrictive tree ordinances led to longer power outages.

“Although the commission and public staff have no jurisdiction over municipalities, they nevertheless recommend… that all municipalities reexamine their tree-trimming ordinances, in consultation with utility providers, to make sure that the need to protect trees and foliage is properly balanced against the need for citizens to receive reliable electricity,” the commission wrote shortly after.

While some residents said they were skeptical of the outcome of the process, city staff, Vaughan and Duke Energy representatives said they were hopeful an agreement could be reached.

Vaughan said she hopes the final draft will be completed before the subcommittee’s March 21 meeting so the public can read it and bring comments and so it is ready for a council work session a few days later.

If the sides couldn’t agree on some issues, like the four-year trimming cycle, Vaughan said she was unsure how council would proceed, adding that it would be necessary to hear from residents again and would depend on the extent of other agreements in the ordinance.

Council members said at last week’s meeting that part of the reason for collaborating was to avoid sorting the issue out later in court. Montgomery said later it would be best to resolve issues before a final draft of the ordinance went to council, but said litigation was a possibility depending on the ordinance.

“I don’t want to preclude or try to predetermine anything,” he said. “We each have options that we can pursue and I think we should keep all of those options open.”