Editorial: To end controversial Charleston tree trimming, get at the problem’s root | Editorials

Few news tips are as common, so emotional, and sadly as predictable as a neighborhood upset about the job of cutting down trees from power lines.

It is, therefore, not surprising that after the residents of Dominion Energy got used to working south of Broad Street in downtown Charleston, they had a fresh backlash from residents. In keeping with the large, influential neighborhood, residents formed a group called “Stop Dominion” and asked City Hall to rewrite the recent agreement with Dominion to minimize trimming and ensure it was more sensitive.

Protecting our trees and the beauty they bring to the lowlands is important. But those who want to push back the status quo of pruning should pursue a higher goal than control of the city over pruning. You should have your sights set on the arm of the state government that regulates utilities, as well as the city and utility officials who ultimately work together to decide how many power lines to go underground.

Put simply, the city guides believe there are limits to how far they can go in regulating the cut. Yes, the city has an agreement with Dominion informing the city about pruning work on large trees. However, this work is still subject to the cutting standards the utility deems necessary to minimize the likelihood of their lines being damaged by a tee branch during a major storm.

“If we were to impose standards, they would be challenging (Dominion officials),” says Charleston attorney Chip McQueeney. “Ultimately, a judge will hear protection of trees versus protection from electricity, and we will lose that every time.”

If there is enough concern about the felling of trees, the State Public Service Commission could step in and ask for more frequent, less dramatic felling of trees. Currently, Dominion cuts trees in a specific neighborhood roughly every five years, and more frequent work could allow for less dramatic changes. But such a change would also add to the utility company’s costs and help them raise prices.

“If the PSC wanted to have regulations with specific clearance requirements that take into account the need to protect aesthetics and trees in general, it would be appropriate for them to do so,” says McQueeney. “But it is not appropriate for us to do that.”

Senator Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, has proposed laws requiring stricter certification for felling trees around power lines, but even if it did at some point (it won’t be this year) it probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Yes, better credentials can reduce the number of errors and potentially improve the overall quality of the trim work, but it does not change the underlying tension regarding the risk trees that occur during storms.

For local residents tired of cutting down unsightly trees, and there are many, the best solution is to urge elected officials to give higher priority to burying power lines. Granted, this is expensive work, even under cost-sharing agreements that involve the city, utility, and owners.

However, a more aggressive strategy for burying power lines would be a major investment in the future that will increase the reliability of our electricity supply and end the regular, emotional, and completely predictable wailing of residents whose trees have left an unsightly mess.

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