Focus on BWL Tree-Cutting Intensifies

Friday, July 14, 2017, 7:03 am
Alice Dreger

With more and more East Lansing property owners raising objections to electric utility BWL’s contractors’ cutting of trees in terms of methods and intensity, City Manager George Lahanas tells ELi, “It is preliminary at this point, but we are looking to hire an independent firm that specializes in tree utility trimming to offer an opinion on the standards and implementation of the program taking place in the City of East Lansing.”

Meanwhile, at its monthly meeting last night, East Lansing’s Historic District Commission voted to ask for a special meeting with the City Attorney to discuss laws governing Historic Districts with regard to trees. The Historic District Commission also decided by consensus to invite BWL’s forester to meet with the Commission to discuss tree management.

As we have reported, BWL is playing catch-up after decades of allowing trees to grow up around and in some cases right between electric wires in East Lansing. The result is that many old-growth trees are being cut back severely or removed entirely, particularly as BWL makes way for higher-voltage lines to upgrade service to East Lansing.

On Monday, ELi reported the frustration of Mark and Kathi Terry, owners of a landmarked downtown East Lansing house, following the topping of an old Norway spruce on their property by Wright Tree Service, a contractor hired by BWL to cut trees in East Lansing near BWL lines. In response, we heard from many East Lansing property owners equally upset and worried, and also from BWL’s Communications Coordinator Amy Adamy.

Adamy maintains that the Terrys were advised by BWL’s vegetation management team that the tree would have to be either removed or topped. Says Adamy, “We simply wanted your story to reflect that we were openly communicative with [Mark Terry] well before the trimming happened, and were very clear about how the tree would be topped.”

The Terrys continue to say they were given to understand the tree would be cut back away from the power lines, as had occurred in the past. They say they were shocked by what Wright Tree Service did to their tree. Says Mark Terry, "We were told it [the 'topping'] would be in the same place it had been done before, which was easily determined, as the trunk had split into two shoots when it re-sprouted. The tree obviously survived, even thrived after that [previous] cut. This was well before that, and survival is certainly not guaranteed" now.

Other homeowners have relayed experiences of miscommunication with BWL, and several have written to ELi to ask what the City is doing to protect trees from what they see as overly-aggressive cutting. Here’s a sample of many comments received this week:

  • “They did the same to our tree while we were out of town. We are sick about it. I feel BWL owes us a tree. The workers clearly were lazy and rather than trimming along the lines, just lopped off the top. Do we have any recourse?”
  • “I have seen horrible examples of trees cut in half vertically all over town, [trees] which will surely come down in future storms. I agree there was a big issue with letting trees go for so long [without being trimmed near wires].”
  • “I just had a disturbing conversation with a convoy of tree service trucks in my neighborhood. I asked how long these crews would be cycling through East Lansing cutting trees. A guy in the middle of the group who seemed knowledgeable basically said, four years…I wonder how widely known it is that the trimming in 2017 is apparently just the beginning. And what citizens can do to impact this outcome.”
  • “Not happy with what I’ve seen as a hack job around my neighborhood. We have lost part of what made our EL neighborhoods beautiful and unique.”
  • “[The] west side of Hagadorn north of Grand River is hard to even look at. Every day I dread them coming to our house. The town looks hit by a natural disaster.”
  • “What is our City Council doing about this?”

In December 2015, the current City Council debated and deferred a draft tree protection ordinance, Ordinance 1363. Following that, in February 2016, East Lansing’s Commission on the Environment reviewed the draft ordinance and provided Council with feedback.

At that time, the Commission on the Environment “urge[d] Council to delay action on this ordinance to allow the time needed to fully gather and consider…additional issues,” including feedback from utility companies, legal impacts, potential impact on City resources, and so forth. (See the minutes from the discussion.)

Since that time, apparently no action has been taken in the area of tree protection with regard to utility vegetation management, other than an inventory of City trees.

City Council recently entered into a franchise agreement with BWL which did not limit BWL’s action on tree-trimming except for that conducted on publicly-owned land. In those cases, BWL was granted “the right to trim trees if necessary…subject, however, to the supervision and reasonable control of the City’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services or its successor.” (That was the franchise agreement that has allowed the City to obtain a 5% fee from East Lansing BWL customers via their BWL bills.)

This past spring, BWL cut down a series of mature trees in Stoddard Park in order to maintain electrical lines there. BWL agreed to plant new trees there, farther away from the lines. BWL has a dedicated page that explains the company’s vegetation management strategy.


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