Some James Island residents will have their grand live oak trees trimmed by Dominion Energy in the fall, and town officials are prepping for the worst.
Last week, Town Council discussed the possibility of having a certified arborist present when Dominion does maintenance work to make sure the trees stay in shape. The discussion comes after residents in Mount Pleasant and Charleston created tree agreements with the utility after dozens of residents complained about haphazard trimming.
"It's not like a bad haircut," James Island Town Councilman Garrett Milliken said. "It takes a while to grow back."
Milliken said the discussions were inspired when a particularly bad amount of tree trimming happened in the spring in West Ashley and Riverland Terrace, which even prompted an investigation by the city of Charleston.
While state-wide legislation has been filed by state Sen. Sandy Senn, a Charleston Republican, it has not gotten traction in Columbia.
"I've lived here for 20 years," Milliken said. "And every time they trim the trees it just looks awful."
Paul Fischer, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, said the utility works to arborist standards.
"Representatives from Dominion Energy attended the meeting last week, and met with the mayor and town administrator immediately following," Fischer said. "Again, the safety of our employees and our customers remains our top priority, and as such, our trimming standards and required clearances around our lines have not changed."
Milliken said the town is using Charleston's recent tree agreement with Dominion Energy as an example for their own possible contract, and Senn's model legislation has also served as a guide for Town Council. The ordinance is still in the early planning stages.
"This is piggybacking off that bill," Councilman Darren Troy Mullinax said. "Municipalities aren't coming up with this on their own."
Dominion Energy trains their line workers to use the Tree Care Industry Association’s standards when approaching overgrown branches on utility lines. This has led some residents to wonder what an arborist agreement would accomplish.
Gerry Naumann, who lives off of McHenry Avenue on James Island, said her oak had been completely shaved on one side next to utility lines. A year later, it grew lopsided, and the uneven weight caused the oak to split and fall on her roof. One of the crewmen working with the utility said he was a certified arborist, which has left Naumann concerned about how effective the tree agreement would be.
"The man in charge told me he was a certified arborist when they were cutting my trees," Naumann told The Post and Courier. "Then the personal arborist I hired said it was way overcut. So I'm skeptical."
An independent report by the city of Charleston found that nine of 74 grand trees trimmed in the West Ashley neighborhoods in march were not compliant with industry standards for pruning. Many were labeled as “ugly and misshapen.” The cuts were still in line with the arborist’s standards, according to the report.
Charleston recommended the utility decrease the required distances between foliage and power lines. Dominion mandates a minimum of 15 feet of side clearance between tree limbs and electric lines and 20 feet over the main power line. The city is recommending a maximum distance of 10 feet for side clearance, a top clearance of 10 to 15 feet, and a bottom clearance of 7 feet.
Shortly after Charleston's report, Dominion appeared to discuss their tree trimming tactics and potential alternatives with the Public Service Commission, the government body that oversees utilities in South Carolina.
Several years ago, the utility went from trimming every seven years to every five years so less would need to be trimmed at any given time. Since then, numerous complaints from impassioned residents have been fielded by the utility and the city.
Mullinax said a first version of the agreement will be looked at by Town Council at the Aug. 15 meeting.