Sullivan's Island tree trimming

Dominion Energy tree trimming crews have given Sullivan's Island residents heartburn with their latest work. Brian Hicks/Staff

SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — As soon as the storm passed, the chainsaws came back.

It’s hard to say which was welcomed less.

For weeks now, Dominion Energy crews have been kicking around here, trimming tree branches away from the power lines ... and producing the same cringe-inducing results that folks have seen on James Island and in West Ashley.

Beautiful live oaks have been hacked, butchered and violated. Jasper Boulevard looks like it was invaded by a bunch of juvenile delinquent samurais playing Picasso.

As you might imagine, locals are horrified by this landscaping — not only because their trees have been disfigured, but because this is a bad time of year to cut live oaks.

“Many people on the island are concerned with the timing, citing oak wilt and hurricane season as major stressors on the trees,” resident Jill Newell says. “Everyone that I have spoken to feels that this round of trimming is much more severe than years past.”

Dominion says it is cutting trees exactly back to where they were five years ago, and its crews travel with an arborist to make sure trees aren’t damaged (apparently there are degrees of damage). Some islanders believe it might be better for a third-party arborist to monitor the mutilation.

“It’s caused a lot of people heartburn,” Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neil says.

The mayor, Town Council and staff have gotten a steady stream of calls since Dominion showed up, but there is little they can do. Even the town’s arborist can only make suggestions. The utility has access to the right of way, and state law gives Dominion the right to keep its lines clear.

Too bad there isn’t a law grading the work on its artistry. By industry standards, Dominion argues, power lines need 10 feet of clearance on the sides and below them — and 20 feet above. Usually that means crews cut a huge gash in the trees, most often a v-cut, which leaves straggling branches hanging over the street.

The mayor says town staff has persuaded the utility to minimize cutting in some particularly sensitive areas. Luckily, he says, the Gold Bug tree — a live oak, that legend has it, partially inspired the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name — is far enough out of the right of way that it will be spared. But others won’t be so lucky.

“Sometimes you have to wonder if the tree is going to make it,” O’Neil says.

Dominion officials have promised to show up for a Town Council meeting in the next couple of months to talk to residents about burying power lines — something that comes up after every storm, and every round of tree “trimming.”

Most folks would welcome that, but local officials are wary because it is, well, complicated. Burying lines in existing neighborhoods would mean running afoul of existing water lines, sewer mains and stormwater drains.

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Since the island is at sea level, there also are worries about saltwater infiltration into the lines. And, without an underground system, the transformers would sit on the ground — which was expected to be underwater during Dorian.

The mayor says utility officials claim it likely would take longer to restore power after a storm with underground lines. Perhaps. The reason power went out on the island during Dorian wasn’t because of Sullivan’s trees falling on lines — the supply power from Mount Pleasant went out.

Of course, the biggest problem with burying lines may be the cost. It might take hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for every foot of line buried. And utility companies generally won’t eat that cost; residents do.

It’s good that Dominion is willing to come out and talk to folks about options, whether it leads to underground lines or not. At the very least, perhaps residents could take the opportunity to try and persuade the company to go a little easy on the trees.

Because, at this point, Dominion isn’t doing Sullivan’s Island any favors. Unless it was hoping to decorate for Halloween a month early.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.