Residents are expressing concern that United Illuminating's plan to prune or remove trees whose branches are within eight feet of power lines could harm the town's reputation for lush beauty, frequently recognized with Tree City USA honors over the last three decades.
"Certainly the look of that is not going to be pleasant," said Carol Way, a District 5 member of the Representative Town Meeting, during a forum on the tree-trimming program Tuesday night in Tomlinson Middle School.
"It will be different," replied David Goodson, UI's manager of vegetation management.
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said, "I'm just hoping we're not going to have every single tree near a power line cut down. I think that's the concern."
UI's plan applies to trees that are in public rights-of-way, which in Fairfield can extend from a foot to 30 feet from the paved portion of a road, according to town officials. UI literature says trees on private property would not be trimmed or removed without the owner's consent, unless they are "in direct contact with our energized conductors and present an imminent danger."
But an exception exists if that tree's branches overhang public roads because the town's tree warden has jurisdiction over that space, according to UI. "If the trunk is on private property, private tree, but it overhangs the right-of-way, it's our responsibility to maintain it," said town Tree Warden Ken Placko.
During Tuesday's 2½-hour meeting, Goodson outlined how residents could object to the removal or pruning of trees, and First Selectman Michael Tetreau cited a town ordinance that requires a permit from the tree warden for the pruning or removal of any tree on public property, rather than a blanket permit for all trees to be removed.
Goodson said UI's eight-year, $100 million tree pruning and removal program, designed to reduce the number of power outages caused by branches falling on power lines during storms, increases the clearance from power lines and conductors from six feet to eight feet and reduces from five to eight years to four years the frequency when UI will examine trees. "It's all about fewer outages and less damage," he said.
"Extreme weather is a fact of life here in New England," Goodson said. "We are due for some very severe weather ... it's not if, it's when."
The tree-trimming program is slated to begin in Fairfield with a general notice sent to residents on 30 to 40 streets in about two weeks. Then, two weeks after that, a work planner will go door-to-door to explain the program and UI's plan to prune or remove trees near homes within the target area. "This is where we engage with you -- the folks who are interested in trees in the community," Goodson said. "We are going door-to-door to every single property to get consent ... You can say `Yes' or `No' or ask for a modification."
A resident who objects to UI's plan has 10 days to file an objection in writing with UI and the town's tree warden (or the state Department of Transportation if the tree is in a state right-of-way). The tree warden, or DOT, then has 15 days to make a decision. If the ruling favors UI, the resident who objected could file an appeal with the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. If the ruling favors the resident, UI could file an appeal with PURA, Goodson said.
"There are several levels that you have input," Goodson said. He said the contractor working for UI would determine if a tree had to be pruned or removed based on its condition and location. He said residents could hire their own arborist to prune a tree if the arborist was qualified to work around power lines.
Placko said residents also could appeal the removal of a tree in Superior Court within 10 days of his decision. "You have the right to go to court on it. The court might say, `Wait for PURA to act on it,' " he said.
Patricia Kirmayer, a Fairfield Beach Road resident, said Beach Road, which runs perpendicular to her street, is "important to my life" and wanted to know how she could find out which trees would be pruned or removed on that road since she is not an abutting property owner. "My life is still smaller because that tree is gone. How can I get into the process?" she asked.
Goodson said UI would post a small tag on each tree for its contractor and it would be up to Placko to post a notice on the tree. Goodson later said residents who object to the removal or pruning of a tree need to consider that a power outage could affect a lot of people and that some may have a medical need for electricity.
Several residents said UI's program ought to include replacing large trees that are removed with smaller trees. "The issue of replanting is on everyone's mind," said Misty Beyer of Congress Street. Beyer and other residents said they also would appreciate before and after images of how UI's program would affect notable trees, such as a large sycamore on Beach Road.
Goodson said aesthetics pose the biggest challenge for the program, but he said trees would grow back. He said PURA is expected in the coming days to issue decisions on re-plantings and stump grinding. Stump grinding was not part of UI's plan, but some money is available in the budget for re-plantings, Goodson said.
Regarding stump grinding, Tetreau said, "A town ordinance requires a permit to remove a tree and the permit defines how a tree is going to be left."
Jim Cole, director of engineering, operations and maintenance for UI, said the utility would have to review its budget if Placko requires stump grinding as part of a town permit to remove every tree. "We're not funded for that level of stump grinding. The cost of stump grinding can [exceed] the cost of tree removal," he said.
Tetreau replied, "The ordinance points to the tree warden as the final authority on town property."
Proposed state legislation on tree pruning and removal is "silent" on whether tree work planned in the town's three historic districts would also require approval from the town's Historic District Commission, Goodson said. "The process would be the same -- work with the tree warden ahead of time, lay out the work plan and go door-to-door and ask for consent from abutting property owners," he said.
UI has given the town of Fairfield a spreadsheet that identifies streets where work is planned for the eight-year span of the program, Tetreau said. "I think we can break that out into 12 months at a time to post on the [town] website," the first selectman said. "We'll work on getting that done. UI did provide us with that list."
Goodson said UI launched a pilot tree-trimming program in four communities -- Bridgeport, Hamden, Shelton and Orange. He said property owners who gave consent for the pruning or removal of trees near their homes ranged from 85 percent in Orange to 98 percent in Shelton. Ten thousand trees were identified for work, with 60 percent pruned and 40 percent removed, Cole said.
The $100 million cost of the program, spread out over eight years and 320,000 UI customers, amounted to an average of $1 a month for each customer and already has been was included in their rates, Cole said.
Burying UI's power lines underground would cost from $10 billion to $15 billion and lead to a tripling of residential power bills, Cole said. "That was studied. It's so enormously expensive, it was not an option," he said.
The $100 million cost of the program is being spread evenly among all UI customers, Goodson said. "There's no extra charge because you live in Fairfield," he said.
Tetreau, though, said the town may incur a cost based on how much additional work is required for the tree warden's office, as well as the extent of stump grinding and replacement trees that could be funded by UI.
Questions or concerns about UI's tree-trimming program can be sent to Goodson via e-mail at email@example.com.