Tree ordinance vote delayed at residents’ request

by Eric Ginsburg

Three organizations active around Greensboro’s proposed tree ordinance convinced the city council to postpone its scheduled May 21 vote to approve the new ordinance, arguing that while it is a major improvement, the ordinance should do more to protect trees from electric utility line maintenance.

The city, which has been working with Duke Energy’s lawyers to craft an ordinance that won’t immediately be challenged in court, forwarded the organization’s requests to Duke for consideration and is awaiting a reply.

The Westerwood Neighborhood Association, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society drafted letters to the city calling for numerous specific changes to the ordinance, and Deputy City Manager Jim Westmoreland said the city didn’t make any recommendations or comments on the requests before giving them to Duke Energy for review and feedback.

Jack Jezorek, the Westerwood Neighborhood Association vice president who also said he wrote the Audubon Society’s letter, wasn’t thrilled about the city’s handling of the letters.

“I know the city feels like they’re caught in a vice,” he said. “I appreciate that. They want to get the best possible ordinance [but] they just feel that their hands are tied to a large degree by the utilities commission. I wish the city would try to break some of those ties by giving some of the comments to their staff first to see what they thought before they handed it off to Duke.”

Westmoreland said the city expects to hear back from Duke Energy by Friday, giving staff enough time to review and incorporate any possible changes before council votes on the issue on June 18.

Duke spokesperson Davis Montgomery and Westmoreland agreed that some of the issues addressed in the letters were probably workable, like providing greater clarity on the definition of terminology. Other concerns in the letters “is ground that has already been covered” and likely won’t be an area of agreement for the city and Duke Energy, Montgomery said.

“A lot of the questions that are in those three documents we got are things that were either answered that night or have been answered before in some of the subcommittee meetings,” Montgomery said. “Materially, probably most of what we’ve accomplished so far will stay pretty much as it is.”

The letters make several overlapping demands, including a desire for Duke Energy’s stricter trim standards to apply citywide. The council’s subcommittee on trees recommends that the city council take the issue and three other areas of disagreement with Duke to the NC Utilities Commission. Some residents would like to see the council put stricter requirements, like a citywide trim standard and a smaller “pruning box” in the ordinance despite Duke’s objections.

“This amounts to just kicking the can down the road and is a far cry from earlier statements from several members of the council subcommittee that Greensboro should immediately pass an ordinance like Raleigh’s… and apply them to both city owned and private property,” the Sierra Club’s letter says. “Instead of waiting, the council should simply enact this additional layer of protection now.”

The Audubon Society’s letter also calls for stricter rules to be implemented through the ordinance rather than putting it before the utilities commission “even if legal staff believes that the NC Utilities Commission will overturn some of them.”

Jezorek said critics would like to see a more proactive ordinance and for the city to “fight a little harder” on the areas of disagreement.

“What I think the Audubon and the Westerwood [letters] said is that we would like the city to put that into the ordinance and be made to take it out,” he said. “We certainly appreciate the city going through this. Show the citizens that you’re really going to bat for us big time.”

The three letters all call for an appeal process with a local appeal beyond the urban forester rather than going directly to the utilities commission, another one of the four items that Duke and the city have been unable to agree on. At least one of the concerns raised in a letter has already been dealt with: a request to post the four areas of disagreement that will likely go to the utilities commission be posted online. Westmoreland said the information is already on the city’s website along with other information about the proposed ordinance but may have been overlooked.

Other areas of the ordinance could see some modifications, Westmoreland said, such as the notification process. The three organizations argue that publicizing planned tree-trimming work by posting it on the city’s website alone is not adequate, and Westmoreland said that, “they make a good point.” Under the possible revision, notifications would be posted on the website in addition to either an automated telephone call or a door hanger rather than potentially in lieu of one of these other options.

Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, who chaired the subcommittee on trees, said she supports the decision to delay the council vote because the goal isn’t to get it done, but to create the right ordinance. Vaughan said she believed several of the changes requested in the letters and at a May 9 community meeting on trees can be incorporated, including more advanced notice of scheduled tree trimming for power line maintenance.

Jezorek and the letters emphasized how appreciative residents are of the city’s efforts around the ordinance. Jezorek said the fact that the council vote was delayed shows that residents are being taken seriously and in the Audubon Society’s letter, he thanked the subcommittee and city staff for “their extremely hard work.

“We understand the constraints under which this document had to be drawn, and we know the council is breaking new ground with the ordinance,” the Audubon Society letter says.

Once the city hears back from Duke Energy and staff has had an opportunity to review and make any changes to the tree ordinance it will likely be posted on the city’s website a week ahead of the June 18 council vote, Westmoreland said.