Residents fight utility’s plan to save wires by downing trees

In Sudbury, among the area towns contesting NStar’s policies, Richard Salus was left with 22 pine tree stumps in his yard. In Sudbury, among the area towns contesting NStar’s policies, Richard Salus was left with 22 pine tree stumps in his yard. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2012
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NStar’s efforts to step up pruning around power lines following last year’s widespread outages have hit a roadblock in Brookline, where residents say the risk of losing electricity is not reason enough to cut down the trees they love.

A flood of written objections halted a request last week from the utility to remove 22 trees that have grown into the distribution wires along three streets in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood.

“There has to be some sort of cost-benefit analysis,” said Rob Utzschneider, a Woodland Road resident who wrote an objection. “I’d take a couple days of outages occasionally if I had to. It’s a price that’s well worth paying given the beauty of the trees.”

Communities such as Needham, Sudbury, and Wayland have been frustrated in their attempts to halt NStar from carrying out its aggressive clear-cutting policy around high-voltage transmission lines because of the utility’s easements along those lines.

However, local officials have authority over how trees are managed along lower-voltage distribution lines, like those under discussion in Brookline.

NStar does not follow a clear-cutting policy along distribution lines, according to a spokeswoman, who said the utility’s procedure is to prune around the wires, and to cut trees down only as a last resort, when it is prohibited from pruning.

In Brookline, NStar has requested the right to remove two Norway maples on Dunster Road, five red oaks on Laurel Road, and 15 red oaks on Woodland Road.

Under Chapter 87 of the Massachusetts General Laws, once a resident objects to tree removal in writing, the removal request is denied. Tom Brady, Brookline’s tree warden, received 37 objections from 45 people, according to his office.

NStar still has the right to appeal the decision to the Board of Selectmen, but has no plans to do so, said spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman.

“We’re in a really tough position. We’re trying to spend more money on tree trimming, on getting hazardous trees out of the way,” she said. “We’re faced with situations where customers and municipalities don’t want their trees pruned back.”

Falling trees, she said, are the number one cause of power outages.

Last August, Tropical Storm Irene took out power for more than 500,000 NStar customers. In October, more than 200,000 NStar customers lost power after a snowstorm. Many of those outages were caused by falling trees.

The attorney general’s office on Thursday announced that it will seek more than $16 million in fines against another utility, National Grid, for its slow response to the storms, underscoring the thorny position that NStar could find itself in if it allows what it says are potentially hazardous trees to stand.

NStar is also facing the possibility of steep fines over its handling of the storms.

In the storms’ aftermath, Pretyman said, the utility enlarged the buffer zone it requires around distribution wires from 8 feet on either side of the wires and 12 feet above them to 10 feet on either side and 15 feet above.

The utility has trimmed trees across Eastern Massachusetts using the new buffer zone, said Pretyman. In Brookline, both zones have been used by pruning crews, depending on the situation of each individual tree and at the discretion of the tree warden.

The utility had already requested permission to prune the trees in Brookline that it now wants cut down, but was denied.

Brady said that the amount of pruning the utility wanted to do would have badly damaged the trees, most of which are between 80 and 100 years old. The town granted the majority of NStar’s pruning requests for other trees throughout Brookline, he said.

Residents say that the trees NStar wants to cut down have never caused a problem before, and removing them would leave their shady, green streets barren and hot. Their property values would be lowered, they say, and the loss of the mature trees would harm the environment.

“I am appalled and heartbroken that the town would even consider such a horrific proposal from NStar,” wrote resident Rachael Goldfarb in a letter of objection. “Cutting down the trees in our neighborhood to serve their business needs would be a moral outrage, disgrace, and crime against nature.”

“These are mature oak trees, some in better condition than others, but all provide shade to our homes, beauty to our streets, and, even more important, absorb carbon dioxide, emit oxygen, and reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We need trees more than ever!” wrote Kathryn Murphy in her letter of objection. “In this era of climate change and global warming, I find it outrageous that NStar is proposing to eliminate so many large trees.”

“If the choice was to lose every tree and have no loss of power, I think many of us would choose to take the risk,” said resident Brent Dibner, who also wrote a letter of objection. “If someone said, ‘We’re going to kill everything in nature so we won’t have any mosquito bites,’ we would feel the same way.”

Some residents are less sanguine about the possibility of a tree-related power outage.

“I think the trees should be held enough at bay that they don’t threaten distribution wiring,” said resident Jim Kirtley, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. “I suspect many of these people don’t actually think about the consequences of having trees over- top their power lines. It’s only when their power goes out that they’re unhappy.”

There must be, residents say, some way that their trees can coexist with NStar’s lines.

The idea of putting wires underground has been batted around, but the expense — according to NStar, the going rate is between $1 million and $2 million per mile of wire — would be borne by the town, and ripping up the ground to install the wires could potentially kill the trees anyway.

“It’s not that the trees are in the way of the power lines. The trees got here first,” resident Glenn Murphy said at a meeting last week where NStar representatives outlined their case for removing the trees.

“The power lines are in the way of the trees.”

Evan Allen can be reached at

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