Defend neighborhood trees

  • Posted: Friday, December 20, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Several years ago, residents of South Windermere coalesced to protect the subdivision's trees from heavy-handed "trimming" by SCE&G. Residents say the effort paid off. Utility arborists agreed to cooperate with residents, and both residents and SCE&G officials were satisfied in the end.

Now they're back in South Windermere, but the neighborhood wasn't ready for them. Along the quiet streets lined by brick houses, large oak trees are missing their middle branches. Those that are left look like a ragged "V".

Some trees look as if they were split down the middle, top to bottom. Only half remains.

One spreading live oak at the corner of Tarleton and Lord Ashley has been spared - so far. The homeowners, Ben and Claire Goldberg, planted it 52 years ago at the suggestion of SCE&G. They were told the shade would ease their sky-high power bills.

Now the trimmers want to put their buzz saws to the tree. Representatives from SCE&G, its tree service, the neighborhood and the city of Charleston are meeting this morning to talk about how they can work this out. It happened before. Why not again?

But the lesson for neighborhoods with overhead power lines is this: If you snooze, you lose.

Unless neighborhoods take a stand for their trees, the crews hired by SCE&G will handle things as they are accustomed to. And it's not a pretty sight.

Neighborhoods like Riverland Terrace on James Island should be an example for others. The Terrace has magnificent oak trees and has generally managed to keep SCE&G from doing its worst.

But residents can't let down their guard. There is always a next time for "trimming."

Ultimately the best thing for neighborhoods like South Windermere would be for power lines to be buried. The neighborhood requested as much shortly after Hurricane Hugo. Presumably it is on a waiting list.

In addition to sparing trees that are beautiful and that provide a home for animals and shade for humans, underground lines are not prone to cause outages, as occur when overhead lines are downed by high winds. It's an expensive process to bury the lines, and SCE&G officials say it is expensive to make repairs when lines are buried.

But trimming huge trees and dealing with the inevitably unhappy people whose neighborhoods are adversely impacted can't be cheap.

Public utilities have an obligation to keep power available to residences and businesses. They have been given authority to trim trees to ensure that happens. That is altogether reasonable.

But it's difficult to accept that the only way to do that is to butcher trees as drastically as is happening in South Windermere. In the summer of 2012, SCE&G found that some power outages were occurring as a result of the now 52-year-old oak tree on Lord Ashley Drive. It needed to be trimmed, and that's what happened. It wasn't hacked. The Goldbergs and the tree cutter figured out together how it could be done in a way that protected the power lines and preserved the tree.

Protecting their trees is one of the nicest things neighborhoods can do for themselves. Residents, neighborhood associations and garden clubs should insist that SCE&G and its contractors restrain themselves on tree work in the right of way, and local governments should back them up.

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