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Out on a limb: Selectmen question cost, impact of UI tree-removal plan

Published 6:49 am, Thursday, March 20, 2014
  • United Illuminating representative Jim Cole explains the company's tree trimming and removal plan to the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday. Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    United Illuminating representative Jim Cole explains the company's tree trimming and removal plan to the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday. Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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First Selectman Michael Tetreau thinks United Illuminating's tree-trimming and removal plan -- designed to prevent power outages that falling tree limbs caused in recent severe storms -- needs pruning itself.

The Board of Selectmen on Wednesday heard an update on the plan from UI representatives, and Tetreau said it sounds like an unfunded state mandate.

The eight-year plan, which has sparked controversy in other communities, was drawn up in response to studies done after several major storms, including Irene and Sandy, that left many of the power company's customers without service for a week or more. The plan calls for trimming or removal of trees near power lines as a way to curb outages caused when storms take down trees.

UI representative Jim Cole said prior to any town-owned trees being removed, the utility would first have to get permission from town Tree Warden Ken Placko. Abutting property owners would also be notified, the tree would be posted by Placko, and flagged by UI. If there are any objections by residents to Placko's decision, property owners or UI can appeal to the state's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which would hold a hearing before issuing a decision.

Tetreau said Public Works Director Joseph Michelangelo has estimated between 20,000 and 25,000 trees in town could fall under the plan.

"Where do we get the money for staff and funding?" Tetreau said. "Did anyone from the state consider the financial impact on the town?" Cole said not all the trees would be addressed in one year, and the overall plan may take longer than the eight years currently contemplated. He also said that a lot of the trees that would need to be removed or trimmed are on private property.

Those on private property are only removed with the property owner's consent, Cole said. "If we don't get it, we move on." "We're not going to take a tree unless we get consent," he said. Cole said private property owners will be notified via mail about three months before the planned removal, and there will also be at least three personal visits from UI employees to discuss the tree removal. If they can't contact a property owner, he said, they will use the utility company's customer information service.

If requested, Cole said, stumps will be ground up, and trees replaced.

"The lines of communication have been continually open between UI and the town," Cole said.

"You can tell we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our residents," Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey said, and recalled campaigning after one of the storms and talking with residents who were without power. But, she said, residents also recognize the impact of trees on property values and the environment's health.

Vahey asked if installing power lines underground is an alternative to maintaining the overhead lines, and Cole said because of the cost, that is not an option.

It would be asking the utility to spend about $150 million a year for about 100 years to move power lines underground, he said.

"It really is very expensive," Cole said, adding that property owners would also face the expense of digging a trench for the power lines from their home to the street.

In response to a request from Tetreau, Cole said he would provide the town with the streets and "circuits" that would be targeted under the program, and the company's priorities. For example, older circuit areas, or areas where there are buildings or homes with medical requirements, would be a higher priority.

He said UI projects pruning or cutting down trees from about 20 miles of road in town per year.