Sept. 28 2016 11:22 AM

BWL walks a tightrope between power lines and tree lovers

When BWL contractors were finished with this tree on Dwight Street in Lansing, less than half of it was left. Arborist Alex Ellis of East Lansing said the tree is “aesthetically ruined and mechanically questionable.”
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

In a road show familiar by now to Lansing area residents, the buzz of chainsaws and roar of service trucks drifted through a sleepy Lansing neighborhood south of Eastwood Towne Center for much of last week.

George Contompasis, a retiree who has lived in the Groesbeck neighborhood for over 40 years, was getting worried.

The Lansing Board of Water & Light is still hustling to trim trees after a December 2013 ice storm dropped heavy limbs on power lines and paralyzed much of the city for over a week.

In Contompasis’ neighborhood, older trees crowding electric lines were taking on a now-familiar V shape by midweek, with generous gaps for wire clearance in the middle. Other trees were cut almost in half, with nothing left on the side closest to power lines. Piles of massive logs, many thicker than 12 inches in diameter, were piling up in a few front yards.

Contompasis was terrified that BWL trimmers would subject a 38-year-old ash tree in his backyard to a Venus de Milo-style amputation. He said he’s paid $300 every other year to protect it from emerald ash borers. The tree has great aesthetic and sentimental value to him and his wife.

“I’ve lost sleep over it,” he said.

Like the seabirds that got riled up when Moby Dick was due to surface, tree-loving residents get nervous when trimming crews appear.

As the BWL rolls through a fiveyear trimming schedule, East Lansing arborist Alex Ellis said he’s been contacted by several area residents worried about the fate of their trees.

This summer, Ellis advised an East Lansing resident, Richard Crittendon, in a legal dispute with BWL over a large silver maple in his backyard.

Ellis said BWL wanted to remove “an entire large diameter trunk, over 12 inches wide,” from the maple.

On July 13, Ingham County Circuit Judge Clinton Canady visited Crittendon’s property to see the tree for himself. The judge ruled in early August that the utility must use end-weight reduction — cutting weight off the ends of limbs —as Ellis suggested, rather than removing the whole trunk.

Ellis, who has worked with companies around the country, from Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., to mid-Michigan, including Consumers Energy, said BWL’s approach to trimming is an “anomaly.”

Ellis said that whenever he’s been hired by a concerned resident to trim a tree near power lines, “it’s always been OK to have limbs hanging over power lines if they’re 20 feet away or so.”

Consumers Energy guidelines call for a range of clearance space around trees, starting at 10 to 15 feet of clearance near low voltage lines.

Responding to an email inquiry last Wednesday, BWL spokesman Stephen Serkaian declined to offer any specifics on the utility’s trimming policy.

“We understand customer’s strong feelings toward their trees,” Serkaian said. “We have an equally strong desire to protect our customers and employees from downed power lines and the safety threat those lines create.”

Ellis said that after a series of conversations with BWL staff during the Crittendon dispute, and after looking at the neighborhoods where trimming has been done, BWL trimming policy is obvious.

“They’re saying, anything on the entire tree, in theory, 50, 70 feet above the power line, they would still want to clip every limb back that has any amount of overhang,” Ellis said. “I have never heard of that being a criterion exercised by a power company in a residential area for line clearance.”

In late fall 2015, BWL contractors reached a North Lansing neighborhood three blocks west of the Golden Harvest restaurant. Ellis looked at a photo of a stocky, mottled Japanese zelkova tree on the Dwight Street right of way and called it “aesthetically ruined and mechanically questionable.”

“You’re taking more than half the tree there,” he said. Large diameter cuts on a mature tree take a long time to heal, he explained. In 15 years or so, the Dwight Street tree could develop “a column of decay,” beginning at the open wound and running down to the base. Ellis reached a similar conclusion in the case of Crittendon’s maple.

“[The] weight that’s left is leaning all in one direction,” Ellis said of the Dwight Street tree. “The trunk supporting the weight hollows out and becomes mechanically unstable.” Branches could fall off, he said, or the whole tree could “fail.”

“You don’t leave a three-quartersremoved tree standing,” he said. “That’s almost negligence.”

Michael McDaniel, who led the community team that reviewed BWL’s performance after the ice storm, said the public is still paying for the BWL’s past policy sins.

The team’s May 2014 report concluded that “consistent vegetation management would have reduced the total number of outages and downed lines.”

“It wasn’t being done,” McDaniel said. “They have been pretty aggressive over the past couple of years, but it was necessary to catch up with the program.”

If the choice is between aesthetics and long-term power outages like the one in 2013, McDaniel said, “I’ve got to go in favor of more aggressive vegetation management.”

But Ellis would like to see the BWL draw up a more nuanced trimming plan that takes into account the species of tree, “how the limbs attach, how much weight, whether it’s a narrow angle or a wide angle crotch” and other factors before taking drastic action.

McDaniel allowed that “some larger utilities have a number of foresters on their staff and they are able to sort of shape the trees.”

But as a city-owned utility, BWL “has to keep its cost down for its ratepayers, which are its owners,” McDaniel said. “They’re not necessarily going to be able to afford a strong forester program in-house,” he said.

Ellis suggested that a compromise is in order.

“Pruning has to happen. Everybody needs their electricity,” Ellis said. “But we don’t need to do the ‘wall of tree’ with no overhang.”

The BWL is already compromising, at least in some cases. At about 8 a.m. Saturday, Contompasis, fearing the worst, greeted a small contingent from BWL.

They kept the trim to a bare minimum, used handsaws and tiptoed over his garden.

“They did a nice job of keeping the shape of the tree,” he said. “I was very pleased.”