Tree cutting along Metro-North line set to begin

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The tree branch that knocked out power to most of the town after an August storm is removed. The new initiative from the state and Connecticut Light & Power aims to stop this from happening again by managing tree growth along the Metro-North line. -John Ferris Robben

The tree branch that knocked out power to most of the town after an August storm is removed. The new initiative from the state and Connecticut Light & Power aims to stop this from happening again by managing tree growth along the Metro-North line. -John Ferris Robben

After a falling tree led to a close to daylong blackout blanketing nearly all of Greenwich last August, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) vowed to take action and now work is set to begin to manage tree growth in town.

At the Jan. 24  Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectman Peter Tesei announced that he had been meeting with CL&P, the state’s Department of Transportation and Metro-North Railroad to discuss tree trimming on the railroad’s right-of-way and state lands that are along the primary transmission lines along the railroad that bring the town power. These meetings were spurred by the incident Aug. 6 when a tree, already damaged by a powerful wind storm the night before, fell from private property in town onto power lines, damaging a transmission feeder and leaving 98% of Greenwich without power at its peak.

“This is not a laughing matter,” Mr. Tesei said. “It is a serious matter of safety for the inhabitants of the town because it impairs electricity to critical facilities and costs people in terms of wages and loss of commerce and loss of resource.”

Tree crews from the state and CL&P have been out to identify trees and limbs for removal, particularly along the state-owned right-of-way along the tracks, but also ones on private property. The actual tree removal and branch cutting is expected to happen this month.

“Trees are the No. 1 cause of power outages, so this initiative is crucial for the reliability of the electric system,” said Ken Bowes, CL&P vice president of energy delivery service, in a press release. “We look forward to this collaborative effort with CDOT, Metro-North and the towns on this project to improve power reliability for our customers in Greenwich and Stamford.”

As a result of the discussions, Mr. Tesei said, the plan is for CL&P to start in Stamford and then proceed west into Old Greenwich and Riverside as it goes through the town.

“They are going to notify residents, but in all candor, it is my understanding that if they need to remove a tree that is within a certain distance of impairing the line they will do so,” Mr. Tesei said. “I think this is something that we all should endorse. I certainly don’t think they need our endorsement, but this is something where they have had the courtesy of working with the town. But I think we all have to be clear that anytime a tree is talked about we get a certain element that gets exacerbated. Understand, we’re not talking about clear-cutting. We’re talking about smart arboriculture to insure the integrity of electrical transmission to the residents of the town, the safety of Metro-North Railroad and all of its passengers, and frankly for the residents whose properties abut the railroad.”

Mr. Tesei did not specify at the meeting which group of residents he was talking about that could potentially be upset over this plan, but the Greenwich Tree Conservancy has been outspoken in the past about the need to preserve trees. Indeed, after the announcement, the conservancy expressed concerns that the plan would go too far by cutting down healthy trees that do not pose a threat.

In an interview with the Post this week, JoAnn Messina, the conservancy’s executive director, said that all the members recognized that something had to be done about the damage trees could cause during a storm, but that they didn’t feel CL&P had done enough research to determine the best path before acting.

“We’ve all experienced the power outages, so we know this is an issue and measures have to be taken,” Ms. Messina said. “We are not against taking down trees that present risks to the power lines or are already sick or damaged. A tree should not be allowed to come down and take out the entire town’s power. Our concern is that not enough research has been done first. There has been no survey done to determine which trees are sick and need to be cut down and which ones are perfectly healthy.”

Ms. Messina said that over the summer, before the damage from Superstorm Sandy, she was on a state committee about vegetative management along with representatives from CL&P and other power utilities in the state and that she noticed then there didn’t appear to be a well-thought-out plan, which raised her concerns that too many trees would be cut down. She said this could lead to additional issues in Greenwich such as soil erosion, changing the noise and wind corridors along the rail lines, and even causing other trees to become sick because the environment has changed. She said without a proper evaluation first, mistakes could be made.

Ms. Messina said she was disappointed to see that there is no ongoing discussion within CL&P about moving Greenwich’s power lines underground. CL&P has said this would be too impractical and expensive, but residents have said it’s been proven to be effective and that the utility is simply making excuses. This has been an ongoing discussion for years and has gained steam with all the recent storms. Ms. Messina, who noted the conservancy’s strong support for funding the town’s at-risk tree-removal program to trim vegetation and remove sick trees, said the conservancy realizes undergrounding lines won’t work everywhere in Greenwich but that it’s something that should be explored as an option and not just ignored.

Ms. Messina said the conservancy wanted to remind residents on private property that as long as their trees are not in a right-of-way, CL&P does not have the authority to remove the trees.

Mr. Tesei said everyone involved in the discussion was “extremely professional, cooperative and understanding” and they “recognized the sensitivity of people’s feelings for trees.” He added that CL&P would be working with property owners, particularly on issues of encroachment.

“No one is looking to take anything away from them, and I think they’re going to work very cooperatively,” Mr. Tesei said.

Town Tree Warden Bruce Spaman was part of the group discussion in Mr. Tesei’s office as well.

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