Greensboro leaders, residents take on Duke over trees

by Eric Ginsburg

No matter what they tried, Duke Energy didn’t want to listen. It was a David-and-Goliath battle between residents in several communities scattered across Greensboro who were outraged at what they said were extreme tree trimming practices by Duke Energy to protect power lines. The company had heard the complaints before — from Fisher Park residents in February — but the virtual monopoly paid little mind to the angry locals until the proverbial David found something to put in its slingshot: the Greensboro City Council.

In arguably its most populist move of the year, council members quickly rallied behind residents in Westerwood, Sunset Hills and Southside who said trees in their yards and communities were “butchered” by Duke’s subcontractor, Asplundh. Initially drafting a letter to the company requesting a three-month reprieve from tree trimming line maintenance work, the council threatened to throw its legal weight around before Duke Energy agreed to a temporary halt and to discuss possible compromises.

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, who several residents said had championed their cause, said a meeting between herself, Mayor Robbie Perkins, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, city staff and Duke Energy on Dec. 21 had been fruitful.

“[Duke Energy] acknowledged that the situation hadn’t been handled well,” Vaughan said. “I’m hopeful that over the next couple of weeks we’ll come up with a reasonably satisfactory compromise.”

A newly formulated “work team” consisting of city staff, a Duke Energy representative and three residents will begin meeting this week, according to Assistant City Manager Jim Westmoreland, and is expected to make recommendations to city council on how to proceed at its Jan. 15 meeting.

Landscape architect Randal Romie, a volunteer and past chair for Greensboro Beautiful, Greensboro Neighborhood Congress advisor Donna Newton and Karen Neill with the Guilford County Agricultural Extension are the three residential representatives who will accompany Westmoreland and two other city staffers on the team. Neill was on the city’s advisory commission on trees, which was established in 2000 but eliminated by council earlier this year, Westmoreland said.

Residents took their concerns to the city after several meetings with Duke Energy proved to be unproductive, they said, and they have been thrilled with the city council’s rapid and sup portive response. While some are hopeful that the work team will be able to come up with solutions that residents will get behind, others are concerned it won’t go far enough or move quickly enough to prevent further cuts.

Duke Energy agreed to temporarily suspend its line-maintenance work that entails cutting branches it says threaten power lines after the city council demanded the company cease and desist to provide time for discussion. Westmoreland said he expects the work team to discuss improved communication between the company and residents, debris and stump removal and, potentially, opportunities for replanting trees.

Gail Barger, the community watch chair in Westerwood who has been outspoken on the issue, said she hopes the city will pass a tree ordinance that would force Duke Energy to modify its practices enough to protect older trees, some of which she said have been around for 100 years.

“If Duke continues this, we’re not going to have any trees left in Greensboro,” she said. “We’re going to have to call it ‘Stumpsboro.’ They devastated Southside. It looks like a war-zone over there.”

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, who represents Westerwood and Fisher Park, said he felt similarly.

“In some cases Duke has done kind of a hack job,” Matheny said. “It’s about keeping the green in Greensboro; it beautifies our city. There’s a book called The Giving Tree. That’s real. I agree with the neighborhoods.”

Matheny, who said in February that it was hard to see an alternative to tree cuts in Fisher Park, said it was a shame that so many trees were cut before people could be brought together to work on a compromise. After signing the initial letter to Duke Energy with District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, Mayor Robbie Perkins and District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, Matheny said he was excluded from the process.

“I wasn’t able to attend the meeting on Friday [Dec. 21] because the mayor basically put the committee together with himself and the at-large members,” he said. “I got a little bit left out.”

Like several residents who have been vocal about Duke Energy’s line maintenance, Matheny said that the trees aren’t being trimmed, but severely cut. Michelle Ferrier, a Southside resident, said the “excessive trimming” had dampened people’s holiday spirit and constituted a “continuing eyesore.”

Ferrier said she’s been thrilled with the city’s response and hopes the process will net a stronger tree ordinance, also adding that residents shouldn’t be responsible for cleaning up debris left after Asplundh crews come through. More importantly, she said the NC Utility Commission, which regulates Duke Energy’s vegetation management policy and utility rate hikes, did not adequately represent residents’ needs.

Without stronger regulation statewide, Ferrier said she fears Duke Energy’s unresponsiveness will continue.

“If they are going to raise rates, they should assume all the costs [of line maintenance], including clean up,” she said.

Vaughan also said modifying the rules Duke is required to abide by on a state level might be necessary.

“They are changing the characters of homes and neighborhoods,” she said. “As a city we need to perhaps contact the utilities commission and see if we can perhaps get the tree-trimming plan changed.”

Barger and other residents have suggested Duke Energy shouldn’t pursue the cheapest possible route to line maintenance and suggested alternatives including raising the height of poles or putting lines underground.

High Point, which provides electricity as a public utility similar to water in Greensboro, uses coated wires to protect some lines from trees. Substation technician lead Frank Tyler said the coated wires are expensive, but are just one of the public utility’s green practices.

Barger said that so far, Duke Energy representatives have only conceded that there could be more advance notice of which trees would be cut, saying that even after a community meeting with 200 residents that seemed to be positive, Duke “sent their chainsaws back in” to Westerwood within days.

“Basically [they said], ‘We’re going to do this but would be more clear in doing it,’” Barger said. “In other words, they’re going to post a number for you to call on your door and they’re going to send you a brick wall to beat your head on. I’d rather suffer a power outage every 10 years than lose all the trees.”

Barger isn’t convinced tree trimming actually reduces power outages, and would like to see numbers for how frequently it occurs. Westerwood resident Marianne Veto said Duke’s initial refusal to admit anything could be done differently besides notification of residents was frustrating, but that she is hopeful a tree ordinance will curb Duke Energy’s abuses.

“They come in, they do their damage, and then they expect you to pay for it,” Veto said, adding that a neighbor got a $2,000 estimate to clean up his backyard after Asplundh cut some of his trees. “They are such bullies. I hope that they will listen but I think that it will take legal action. I just can’t imagine that this many voices won’t be heard by Duke.”

Barger and Hoffmann, who represents Sunset Hills and signed the initial letter to Duke Energy, said other municipalities had tree ordinances in place that could serve as a model for Greensboro. Hoffmann said she asked the city’s legal department to see what authority they could exert over Duke Energy.

“I think that we got to a reasonably good place with our discussion with Duke Energy,” Hoffmann said. “Please understand I am not a botanist… but I think tree management is an ongoing process.”