UI to Greenfield Hill: Barking up wrong tree in quest for underground power lines

Plans to remove thousands of trees in Fairfield were questioned by Greenfield Hill area residents Tuesday, with several focusing on the option: Why not finally begin putting power lines underground?

A forum on the controversial eight-year plan to scale back trees around power lines throughout United Illuminating Co.'s service area was presented by the power company at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church Tuesday night, organized by the Greenfield Hill Village Improvement Society and several Representative Town Meeting members. About 40 people attended.

The utility's tree-trimming plan was formulated in response to long-term power outages during severe storms in recent years when, in many cases, fallen trees and branches knocked down and damaged power lines.

According to town Tree Warden Ken Placko, 20,000 to 25,000 trees will be removed throughout town under the plan, with the bulk of them in the Greenfield Hill area.

"After those storms of 2011 and 2012, those of us in the utility business spent an entire year answering questions," Dave Goodson, manager of vegetation management for UI, said regarding outages caused during Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy. "It was a long year."

"We were told something has to be different," he said.

"When it comes to outages in Connecticut, it all begins and ends with trees, because during extraordinary weather events, just about nine out of 10 outages are caused by trees," Goodson said.

Several people, however, expressed concerns about the tree-trimming plans.

"It sounds like a clear-cutting of trees," said Terry Willie of Fairfield, who asked how such a large number of trees could be projected for removal when, the under plans, each tree is supposed to be assessed on an individual basis.

A Redding Road resident shared his personal "nightmare" of having UI's contracted tree removal company -- Lewis Tree Co. -- take down 40 trees on his property without permission.

"None of the trees were even remotely endangering the power lines," he said.

"It was a very ugly experience," he said, noting that he now has a 120-foot-long void on his property near North Street. "My family has owned the property since 1830 (and) I've never seen anything like this before."

UI officials said that with the new program, which technically goes into effect immediately, written consent first must be obtained from a property owner before a tree can be trimmed or removed. However, while a property owner can file an objection to a tree's pruning or removal, Placko -- as tree warden -- has the authority to veto that.

Placko, who said he was trained to err on the side of maintaining trees, talked to the group about finding a "balance."

However, he cautioned, "There are going to be a number of trees that are going to be requested to be removed and I'm probably going to agree with them."

Meanwhile, resident Robert Melcher proposed the idea of forming a committee to advocate for having power lines installed underground. "Do we go the easy way (or) do we take the ball and figure out how to bury the lines?" he said.

Others were interested in Melcher's proposal, and questioned why UI was not moving forward with that idea.

"Why doesn't UI step up to the plate and say, `Let's get into the 21st century instead of the 19th century?' " asked one resident.

"Underground is extremely expensive and not the option they chose going forward," Goodson said.