Above: Kit Carlson and Wendell Lynch stand at their oak tree that was recently trimmed by Energy Group, as contracted by BWL.
Like a lot of people who lived in East Lansing then, The Reverend Kit Carlson of All Saints Church remembers very well the ice storm that began on the Winter Solstice of 2013. It led to the downing of thousands of trees and to a power outage that lasted a week and more for thousands of BWL customers in East Lansing.
Temperatures remained below freezing, and miserable conditions became downright dangerous as people tried to make due with gas generators and long electrical cords snaked from houses with power to those without.
“We had nine people living in the church at one point during the outage,” Carlson recalls. “I am very sympathetic” to the idea of “vegetation management” around power lines.
A protest held in December 2013 to call on BWL to bring in more crews drew over a hundred people to Glencairn School, just blocks from Carlson's home. (See photo below. Disclosure: I was one of the organizers of that protest, held about nine months before ELi begin as a formal nonprofit news service.)
Two formal reviews conducted after the outage named BWL's failure to keep up with vegetation management as a major cause of the prolonged outage.
But Carlson and her husband Wendell Lynch were nonetheless very worried when a BWL representative came out this July to discuss the trimming of their trees.
Years ago, BWL had come to trim along the lines that run between the backyards of houses on their Glencairn street and the houses of the next street over. That crew “ripped out the crown,” according to Lynch, leading to the death of the tree, which was easily over a hundred years old.
Lynch recalls that when he had an arborist out to look at what BWL’s crew had done to that tree, the arborist called it an “awful butchery.” When the tree died, Lynch and Carlson called BWL out to come take it down, and the crew left the tree, cut up, in their yard, as is the company’s policy.
Like many homeowners, the couple found having the large remnants of a beloved tree remain in their yard both inconvenient and psychologically painful.
When a BWL rep showed up in July, Lynch walked the yard with him, figuring some trees, including a younger oak, would need to be managed or even removed. But when the rep marked for trim an even bigger oak tree than the one they’d lost last time around, Lynch told the rep they were formally refusing to allow BWL to trim.
Lynch was afraid they were going to be facing the same experience over again—a type of cutting that would soon kill the tree—given the likelihood BWL would hire the low bidder who would not really be concerned with tree health.
The tree in question is a very old oak with a triple trunk, and provides much aesthetic value as well as substantial shade. Lynch and Carlson call it a “high value” tree, both in terms of the home’s market value and the emotional feeling it provides.
“The tree saves us so much in energy in the summer,” Carlson says, because of the shade it provides. They did not dare risk losing it to another bad cut job.
“We had no further contact from BWL. We had watched them do all these other houses on our street. We thought we had refused, so they weren’t coming. We thought the long nightmare was over. Then they showed up with multiple crews and were suddenly congregating in our front yard. I was home. I asked them what was going on and they said they were here to trim. They said our refusal didn’t mean anything,” Lynch told me when I interviewed the couple at their home on September 21.
This was a few days after BWL’s contractor came to work in their yard, trimming the big oak, removing a smaller oak, and cutting back other trees.
Carlson said that when they arrived, the crews seemed to know the couple might cause trouble, so they had sent multiple crews—to work fast—and had sent a supervisor. The crew claimed to know nothing about the refusal back in July. So the couple called the non-emergency number of the East Lansing Police.
“Our hope was that East Lansing’s police would take the side of East Lansing taxpayers and ask them to disperse,” Lynch said. “But to our chagrin, the police seemed to be buddy-buddy with these people,” and did not tell them to leave or to show proof of the right to cut.
“The police were working really hard at conflict de-escalation,” Carlson recalls. “Everyone was trying to de-escalate, while we were trying to escalate.”
The couple told the trimmers that they wanted to work with a trained arborist. One person on the crew was then identified as just that, and walked the yard with the couple to explain what exactly they were going to do. The supervisor also told the crews to treat the yard well—to not drink, eat, or smoke in the yard, and to leave no branches or leaves.
Lynch and Carlson say they have to “give them credit”—that the experience was not nearly as bad as they had feared. No trucks came into the yard, just cutters with tools. They offered to take away the younger oak tree they had to cut down, even though BWL says it will not remove wood greater than four inches in diameter, and the couple took them up on that.
The crew also offered to trim any other vegetation the couple wanted trimmed back while they were there, at no charge. All in all, they came out of the experience with much less damage than they had feared.
Below: A tree grown up around BWL power lines on another Glencairn street.
“We did not know we had the right to say ‘show me the easement,’” Carlson told me, when I asked if they had sought to find out from BWL exactly what the easements in their yard specified in terms of BWL’s rights. (Existing easements differ widely in East Lansing, and in some places, BWL appears possibly to lack clear easements. A recent court case did not provide a blanket easement to BWL.)
Carlson thinks perhaps their experience was much better than some because the crews were from Energy Group, out of Detroit, a company that she thinks was more careful than many.
“They’ve been doing good outreach with neighbors,” she said. “They talk with people about what’s best to do, and take care with it.”
I asked Lynch and Carlson what they would tell other people to do if they are facing trimming crews.
“Stay home,” Carlson said, though she noted that can be very hard for people who work outside of their homes.
“Your best defense is to be there when they are there, and talk to them. The more adamant you are, the more likely you are to reach a negotiation.” She says it seems like the crews come between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., when people are least likely to be home. “Tell your neighbors to keep an eye out and call you.”
Both want to make clear that, as Lynch put it, “We aren’t opposed to trimming of trees.” They want reasonable trimming, not like what happened to their lost oak years ago.
Below: Recent trimming in the Pinecrest neighborhood.
After interviewing Lynch and Carlson, I followed up with Steve Serkaian, Executive Director of Public Affairs for BWL. He explains, “Homeowners cannot request that a particular company or crew perform their trimming. They can however, request that we have our BWL forester on site for the trimming.”
“Additionally,” he says, “customers can request a 24-hour notice on when crews will be onsite to perform the trimming.”
Lynch and Carlson received no such notice in spite of having told the rep in July that they were refusing service, so homeowners who have been notified of trimmers coming may wish to send BWL a certified letter indicating that they expect such notice.
As for refusing, Serkaian says, “The BWL will allow a customer to keep a tree that is recommended for removal, however we will still trim the tree to clear it from our powerlines. If the customer chooses to keep the tree against the BWL's forester's recommendations, we will not be responsible for the health of the tree after necessary trimming has been completed.”
He explains, “This is done for both public and crew safety as well as to provide reliable service to our customers.” BWL has said that to avoid another outage experience like the one that lasted into January 2014, significant amounts of tree removal and trimming is necessary.
Below: A sign from the 2013 Glencairn School protest.
Why did Energy Group’s crews offer to take away wood larger than four inches in diameter from Carlson and Lynch’s home, when BWL says it will be left behind, and why did they offer to do a little extra work for the couple?
Says Serkaian, “Contractors or their employees may request permission to pick up wood from homeowners property, however this is considered as an agreement between the homeowner and the person making the request. This is no different than a customer calling persons from the BWL-provided wood salvage list.” (To find the list, go to this page and click on the tab for “how we trim.”)
As ELi reported, East Lansing’s representative to BWL resigned last week over issues of BWL non-paticipation in the State low-income energy assitance fund. Council named former mayor Douglas Jester as East Lansing’s new representative (a non-voting position), and Jester told ELi that among his goals will be working on “reduc[ing] the conflict between power lines and trees.”
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