Steve Bender

 

No, these aren't my crepe myrtles. They are my neighbor's, after the power company pruning crew came through. This looks awful. Photo: Steve Bender

Well, it's been an eventful couple of days since I returned from vacation to find my sugar maple and crepe myrtle butchered by the power company. Grumpy met yesterday with John Morris, a certified arborist and registered forester with Alabama Power, to see if we could come to a mutually satisfactory solution.

I don't think the power company meets very often with an angry homeowner who is both a professional horticulturist trained in tree care as well as someone who has been writing about proper pruning practices for Southern Living for 30 years. It was clear I knew much more about pruning trees than the guy the power company hired to cut mine. I stated my case forcefully, but also calmly and without rancor. I told Mr. Morris that the hack job created a bigger hazard, not a lesser one, and that a certified arborist would NEVER prune trees in such a way that not only ruins their appearance, but makes them more likely to grow into the power lines later on.

Even though I had been urged to sue by outraged readers all over the country, going to court never entered my mind. What I wanted was a solution that compensated me for my maimed sugar maple, assured that tree limbs in my yard would never again be an issue, and let the power company know they can't cut trees according to an arbitrary standard without first consulting with the homeowner.

The Deal

 

If left standing, this maimed maple would have created a much greater hazard than before. Photo: Steve Bender

Obviously, there was no way to save my poor sugar maple. If left, it would quickly shoot out a thicket of long, weak, spindly branches on the denuded side that would become a line hazard. So last night, the power company and I came to an agreement. I am legally bound not to reveal the terms, but suffice it to say they are to my satisfaction.

Avoiding A Repeat Debacles like this one need never happen. In most cases, trees can be pruned to remove the potential hazard without maiming them. Beauty and reliable power are NOT mutually exclusive. And there are some very simple things both homeowners and power companies can do better, so that each side is happy.

What Homeowners Can Do Better Research your local power company's guidelines for how close to poles and lines you can plant trees before you plant. You can usually find this info online. For folks in Alabama, Alabama Power offers a very good planting guide called "Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place."

Don't plant tall-growing trees directly under the lines. (Find out their mature heights before you buy.) Don't plant trees and shrubs next to power poles. (If you restrict access to the pole, the offending plant will be cut. That's a fact.) And don't plant garbage trees like 'Bradford' pear that break in two every time a butterfly sneezes.

What Power Companies Can Do Better Communicate with homeowners! Treat them like human beings with rights! Don't act like an all-powerful dictator who can slash and burn with impunity. Let people know what you plan to do and invite their feedback. Nobody wants their lights to go off. And nobody wants to come home to a yard filled with trees carved into doughnuts, toothbrushes, tuning forks, and cinder blocks either.

More specifically:

1. Give homeowners at least two weeks' warning of what you plan to do and when. In my case, the first notice I got was a tag left on my front door the afternoon before we were to leave for a week's vacation in Paris. The tag was not from Alabama Power, but from a company I'd never heard of, with a hand-written note: "Your trees need pruning. I can suggest replacements." Judy and I had the same reaction. We thought the tag came from some guy with a chainsaw and pickup truck trying to scare up business. In any case, there was no chance to contact Alabama Power prior to the pruning. Homeowners have a right to be there when pruning is done.

2. Do a better job of letting your customers know what the current requirements are. When I planted the sugar maple 20 years ago, I purposely planted it at the recommended distance from the power lines and pruned any branch that strayed towards a line (which was always the lowest line on the pole -- the cable line -- not the actual power lines that are way up at the top). Yet during my meeting with Mr. Morris, he asked if I knew that the power company had recently updated its required distance from power lines. Of course not! How could I? And if I didn't know about the update, you can bet your sweet granny's choppers nobody else in the neighborhood did.

3. Make sure the tree pruning contractors you hire are qualified to prune properly. If you hire them, you're responsible. Do I think the guys who pruned my trees had any more than rudimentary training? Nope. In fact, I bet most pruning contractors have just one guy in the office with a license that employees are allowed to use. Yeah, it is cheaper that way. But poor pruning can't be corrected in a day...or a month...or a year.

4. Don't try to intimidate homeowners by saying, "If you don't let us cut your trees, our costs will rise, and so will your rates." This is one load of manure Grumpy won't buy. Unlike other companies, utilities are monopolies that are guaranteed by law to make a profit every year. According to a story on Al.com, Alabama Power's annual return on equity is between 13 and 14.5%, compared to the national power company average of 10%. Lowering it to 10% would save its customers $287 million a year. I bet you could hire lots of trained arborists with that.

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