NStar puts a hold on tree pruning

By Sarah Thomas
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2010

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Responding to accusations that crews were butchering shade trees, NStar has agreed to a moratorium on tree pruning around power lines in Watertown.

The utility company, which routinely trims tree branches to prevent power outages during storms, has come under fire for its techniques in other communities. Last year, Wayland officials imposed stricter guidelines on NStar before it could finish pruning a stretch of scenic roadway in that town.

NStar agreed to the temporary halt in Watertown last week following 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 the local conservation group Trees for Watertown. “We have a reprieve, but now the real work of protecting our trees into the future begins.’’

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 Representative 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. “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 the 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 spokeswoman 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 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.’’

Last fall, Wayland officials took action after residents complained about tree cutting along Rice Road.

The town’s Board of Public Works allowed the utility to finish the work, but insisted that it follow stricter guidelines to preserve more of the trees.

Hecht said that concerns over tree pruning have also 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 storm-water management, property values, and quality of life. This is on our radar.’’

Sarah Thomas can be reached

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