Almost invariably, when one of Duke Energy’s contractors starts pruning trees to clear power lines in one of Durham’s historic neighborhoods, there is an outcry over “butchering” the trees.
Trinity Park homeowner Chuck Eppinette has taken the protest to a new level. According to his research in city records, for years the pruning has been going on without a required permit – and he, along with a host of other citizens who have complained to city authorities – want City Hall to enforce its own regulations.
“My great hope is, they will have the will power to stand up to Duke,” Eppinette said last week.
“I’ve gotten my share of emails from those folks,” said City Manager Tom Bonfield, and the city attorney’s office is on the case and having talks with Duke Energy.
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“We’ll just have to wait and see how that plays out,” he said.
‘Fight for Durham streets’
The trees in question are those lining city rights of way, particularly the oaks planted in the 1930s and ’40s in neighborhoods such as Trinity Park and Watts Hospital-Hillandale, which have grown much taller than the wires originally well above them.
A city code regulation from 1982 (Article VIII, Sec. 26-231: nando.com/18b) requires public utility companies to obtain a “master permit” for “maintenance or excavation affecting city trees” and gives the city manager “ultimate authority” over the “extent of trimming or other operations ... necessary to facilitate the functions of the public utility company.”
Subsequent agreements between the city and Duke Energy require that pruning comply with the city’s tree ordinance and other city regulations.
The permit requirement has apparently been ignored for years. Bonfield said long-time city employees, including those in urban forestry, “indicate they’re not aware it had ever been enforced” and Bonfield, who became city manager in 2008, said, “I’m willing to say I didn’t know.
“What happens a lot of times is, unfortunately, patterns and practices take over,” he said, and the practice has been that urban forestry’s oversight of pruning “in essence was the same thing as a permit.”
Duke Energy’s current operating agreement with the city requires that its pruning is done “in coordination and consultation” with the city’s urban forester. That has been done, according to Kevin Lilley, manager of the city’s Urban Forestry division.
“We have a good working relationship with Duke Energy,” Lilley said.
In a letter to several neighborhood email lists and at the InterNeighborhood Council (INC) meeting last week, Eppinette urged citizens to press the city to enforce its permit requirement and limit street-tree pruning to 25 percent of a tree’s canopy – a limit taken from the arboriculture industry’s ANSI A300 standards.
“Make sure Durham fights for Durham streets,” Eppinette told the INC delegates.
According to City Hall, though, it’s not that simple.
Whether Duke Energy is in compliance with the rules that apply is “the $64,000 question,” Bonfield said. The 1982 ordinance is clear, but it’s not clear what authority over utility pruning the city really has.
“There is some thought the ordinance at some point was superseded by either a court ruling or a (state) utility commission ruling or something of that nature,” he said.
“I’m not saying that’s a fact, I think that’s just a possibility,” Bonfield said, and that’s something City Attorney Patrick Baker is working on.
“We’ll know that hopefully by (this) week,” he said.
Trees in ‘senescence’
Looking at the trees along Club Boulevard, Buchanan Boulevard and other streets, it’s clear that pruning around power lines has been dramatic – many of the trees look like a Y, with large gaps in the middle of their canopies. Many are clearly in declining health, as well, with sparse leaf covers even in late April.
Those gaps may be the product, though, of multiple prunings over time, and how much damage is due to pruning, though, is not easy to determine, Lilley said.
“These are very old trees; they are trees that are in senescence,” he said. Heavy pruning “has the potential to stress a tree more, simply because of the age.”
Duke Energy has a responsibility to keep its lines clear. With big, old trees, “for a utility to get the clearance they need for safe passage of electricity, they have to take out a portion of the tree, and it’s a significant portion,” he said.
The ANSI standard is that removing more than 25 percent of a tree’s canopy in a single year is inadvisable, Lilley said, but there is an exception for utility pruning, which “recognizes that ... the site dictates the amount of wood that should be removed.
“It’s a difficult point for some people to understand,” he said.
With that consideration, “we are making sure that Duke is complying” with industry standards, he said, and “Duke has been receptive to working with us.”
Nevertheless, “What we are seeing in our neighborhoods, it’s devastating, it’s horrible,” Carol Anderson of Trinity Park said at the INC meeting. Others pointed out that aging oaks aren’t the only trees affected.
“They’re butchering trees that were planted in 1990,” said Tom Miller of Watts-Hospital Hillandale.
City Councilman Don Moffitt, who had talks with Duke Energy about pruning last year, said he’s “delighted” that the public is demanding city action.
“This is an issue that has upset people for a long time,” Eppinette said after the INC meeting. “People feel frustrated ... that all they can do is witness the destruction.”
Durham’s devotion to its trees and concern about their coexistence with utility lines has a long history.
In 1884, Durham’s first historian, Hiram Paul, wrote of the “green lines of aspens and elms” beautifying the fledgling town’s new streets.
The city had an official Tree Commission by the early 1930s, and a law protecting trees on or adjoining public property. In those Great Depression times, the city’s relief agency and public-works director H.W. Kueffner had unemployed men of the town setting out oak saplings in city parks, and along Club Boulevard fron the reservoir to Broad Street.
When Markham Avenue was extended between Buchanan Boulevard and Watts Street in 1937, the city split it in two – curving traffic around an island of soil to preserve a 200-year-old white oak. The old oak succumbed to age in the 1940s, but the island remains as testimony to Durham’s green nature.
By the late 40s, some citizens were worried that the little street trees might one day grow tall enough to interfere with overhead electric wires. However, C.F. Korstian, a Duke University forester and one of Durham’s original tree commissioners, said there would be no problem.
By the time the trees got that big, Korstian was certain, all the power lines would have been moved underground.