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NSTAR agrees to halt tree cutting
in Watertown after complaints

Posted by Sarah Thomas  July 1, 2010 10:02 AM

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Maureen O’Sullivan, Mount Auburn Photography


A tree recently cut by a subcontractor of NSTAR in Watertown.


Responding to accusations that crews have been butchering shade trees, NSTAR has agreed to a moratorium on trimming trees around its power lines in Watertown until further notice.

The utility company agreed to suspend tree-pruning after numerous community complaints and a series of requests by state Representative Jonathan Hecht.

"I feel like a character in one of those old black-and-white movies, where people speak up and can actually get changes made," said Dr. Joel Hencken, who lives on Lincoln Street and often walks his dog under the maple trees on Walnut Street.

After seeing his beloved trees aggressively pruned by a subcontractor engaged by NSTAR, he became involved with local conservation group Trees For Watertown. "We have a reprieve, but now the real work of protecting our trees into the future begins."

A gallery of pictures of the recent tree pruning undertaken by NSTAR subcontractors may be viewed here.

Ruth Thomasian, president of Trees for Watertown, was involved in a series of talks between Watertown officials, arborists from NSTAR, and members of Hecht’s staff.

"We were just horrified by the way they were butchering the trees, and we knew Rep. Hecht would share our concerns. He used to be a town councilor here, and he knows our trees," Thomasian said. "When we set up the meeting, we knew we wanted people from his office involved."

Thomasian said the meeting was an eye-opener for all attendees.

"NSTAR is beholden to the Department of Public Utilities, which can assess steep fines if power service is interrupted because of falling tree limbs," Thomasian said. "But our concern is that when they prune so much, they destabilize the entire tree and make it more likely to fall down during a storm."

After the meeting, Hecht said he asked NSTAR to halt pruning until more talks could be held.

"We understand that NSTAR wants to maintain a good relationship with the community of Watertown, but that they also have a mandate to protect their power lines," Hecht said. "We proposed the moratorium so that all the stakeholders could talk about the best way to go about doing this pruning."

According to NSTAR, all the subcontractors who prune trees around their power lines are carefully monitored.

"We try to balance the aesthetic needs of the community, but trees of course are among the leading causes of power outages," said NSTAR spokesman Caroline Allen. "We aren’t sure yet what kind of compromise will be reached in Watertown, but we will certainly work with them to find a solution and continue the dialogue."

Allen said that NSTAR had won an award in 2008 from the National Arbor Day Foundation for its tree maintenance strategy, which she said is designed to train the trees to grow around the power lines.

However, Trees for Watertown maintains that the problem is real, and does not end at the town’s borders.

"This is a problem in towns and cities across the United States," Thomasian said. "We’re trying to identify state and federal organizations to work with to make sure there is a clear set of rules utility companies must adhere to when cutting trees."

Hecht said that the same concerns had come up in the state legislature.

"A bill was recently given a favorable reading by the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee that would look at the standards for tree maintenance used by utility companies," he said. "Shade trees are an important part of our energy system, because without them we draw more on the power grid, and they help with stormwater management, property values, and quality of life. This is on our radar."

To read the tree bill, which was filed by Rep. Barry Finegold, click here.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at watertown@globe.com.

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