Our recent reporting on BWL tree-cutting in East Lansing has led to a relatively large number of questions from readers. Today we’re offering answers to some of those.
How does communication with BWL on tree-trimming work?
An ELi reader wrote in response to our reporting: “Informative article on tree cutting. Might be useful to those with concerns to ask BWL for name of person or department at BWL that is designated to receive and respond to customer communications relating to tree trimming program. Both email and regular mail. It would be somewhat unreasonable for a local utility not to provide customers with a point of contact, whatever the customer's viewpoint might be. And how great would an actual phone number and live person be?”
In fact, BWL works on informing customers about upcoming trimming and tree removal, and offers to talk with property owners in advance of the work done on their properties. Besides trees set to be cut being marked with paint by BWL’s foresters, BWL hangs bright pink doorknob hangers on the front doors of properties where trees are going to be trimmed and yellow doorknob hangers when trees are going to be cut down. (See the hangers.)
Explains Amy Adamy, BWL’s Communications Coordinator, “You’ll note that on the back of the yellow card, which is for tree removal, the customer MUST sign before we are able to remove the tree. Our planners also always leave a phone number for customers to call if they have further questions about the work scheduled at their property.”
Just to be clear, the complaints we’ve heard from readers aren't because they didn’t know their trees were going to be subject to cutting; it’s because the cutting didn’t follow what they say they were given to expect from BWL. (Read the story of what happened with an old tree on the property of Mark and Kathi Terry.)
I asked Adamy, “Can you tell me — does BWL ever put in writing what they intend to do to a specific tree so that a property owner is given the plan for their property in writing? If so, do you ever have homeowners sign off on it? If you don’t provide specific plans in writing, why not? I ask because I am hearing about so much perceived miscommunication—and perceived miscommunication is miscommunication.” In response, Adamy pointed to the door hangers. The tree-removal hanger has a place for BWL and the property owner to write some specific information. The tree-trimming hanger does not. Both include a link to BWL’s page on vegetation management.
Trim your own trees?
One reader observed, “If people trimmed their own trees, it wouldn't be necessary for BWL to do anything.”
BWL and other electric utilities strongly advise against non-professionals trimming trees around powerlines. Being near live powerlines, especially with ladders and tools, is extremely dangerous.
That said, property owners can hire tree professionals for their own properties and can hope that the trimming satisfies BWL. That approach was the subject of the lawsuit brought by BWL against East Lansing homeowners Richard and Conni Crittenden. Ultimately the judge allowed the Crittendens to use the service of their own arborist, at their own expense, for some of the trimming.
Note that, if BWL does the work, the property owner does not pay for the work, but property owners are left with wood from cut trees, which some property owners find unacceptable. (To quote one ELi reader, “And don’t get me started on the issue of leaving the huge stacks of wood after they destroyed your trees.”)
Why did homeowners plant trees under power lines?
One reader observed that any homeowner stupid enough to plant a tree under a powerline deserves what she or he gets. But the truth is that, in East Lansing, many of the trees growing near powerlines were not planted intentionally, and some predate the powerlines. BWL failed to trim trees near powerlines in East Lansing for many decades—in some cases, over a hundred years—and that’s why what we’re facing now is huge amounts of cutting as BWL tries to catch up.
Who is responsible for what’s happening?
One theme among reader comments is “Don’t blame the contracted tree service workers.” Wrote one reader, “a lot of the workers are migrant, making very low wages under pretty stressful working conditions.”
We haven’t looked into the conditions of the workers hired by BWL contractors like Wright Tree Service, so we can’t confirm this. We can say that all of the upset homeowners who have contacted us seem to be blaming BWL, not the contracted workers, for what they see as “devastation” and “a tree holocaust.” They blame BWL for historic failure to keep trees appropriately trimmed over the last hundred years, for what they say is very bad communication about tree-cutting plans, and for hiring contractors they believe are sub-standard where tree preservation techniques are concerned.
It’s worth understanding the economic and regulatory reality of BWL. BWL is wholly owned by the City of Lansing. The City of Lansing uses BWL to prop up its budget. In fiscal year 2015-2016, BWL sent the City of Lansing about $21 million as an “equity payment.” The Lansing budget is about $200 million currently, meaning that BWL customers are paying for about 10% of Lansing’s budget through their utility bills. (Today, under action by the current East Lansing City Council, East Lansing customers are also propping up the City of East Lansing’s budget through their BWL bills.)
BWL’s administrators face a lot of pressure to keep expenses relatively low in order to keep the income to the City of Lansing relatively high. That means that funds that might go to pay for things like burying lines and less aggressive, more labor-intensive vegetation management are instead going to the City of Lansing.
And because BWL is a municipally-owned utility, it’s not subject to regulation by the Michigan Public Service Commission as other utilities (including Consumers Energy) are. That means it’s very difficult for customers to lodge complaints against BWL the way they can lodge them against other utilities.
What is East Lansing’s government doing about this issue?
A number of readers have asked, "Where is our City Council on this issue?"
In 2014, the people of Lansing voted to allow municipalities like East Lansing that have BWL customers to name a non-voting representative on the BWL Board. In early 2015, East Lansing’s last City Council named Bob Nelson to be East Lansing’s non-voting representative to the Board. All Nelson can do is convey concerns and questions from East Lansing.
Since that time, East Lansing’s City government has taken no further action to establish protections for private property owners or their trees when it comes to BWL vegetation management. As ELi has reported, the current City Council debated a tree protection ordinance in December 2015 but took no action.
The current City Council also did not use the recent franchise agreement negotiation process to provide protections for private property owners or their trees, although the agreement did build in some City oversight for trees on City-owned land. The City Manager recently told ELi the City is considering an outside expert to look at BWL’s practices. (We have reported how BWL’s practices differ from Consumers Energy’s.)
What can you do if you feel your property was treated unreasonably?
One reader wrote in: "I see numerous articles on the devastating loss of trees due to BWL. My street was hit hard with cutting yesterday and today, and our backyard now looks SO HORRIBLE. They did a HORRIBLE job! We just purchased a home in Whitehills, with beautiful landscaping. The backyard was what sold the property for us. I am heartbroken over how it looks now. What can I do? Who can I contact? I understand the trees needed to be trimmed, I can live with that. What I’m upset about is how no care was taken at all about the finished product. They might as well just chopped the whole tree down, it looks so awful now. I am irate that I pay a lot in tax dollars and this is how our yard is treated. Who can I contact about this?"
BWL sometimes provides replacement trees for those they have removed. To request this, you have to contact BWL. Replacement trees won’t be as mature as the trees removed, may be of different species from those removed, and will be planted farther away from lines.
If you want to convey your concerns to East Lansing’s City Council, you can speak at Public Comment at any City Council meeting (see the meeting schedule). You can also write to City Council by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Writing to that address means your message goes to all City Councilmembers, and a copy automatically goes to City Manager George Lahanas.
If you’re wondering what your legal rights are, you might want to see an interview we did with attorney Greg McClelland, who defended East Lansing homeowners Richard and Conni Crittenden in their lawsuit with BWL on trees.