Few things can set a neighborhood off like tree trimming by a utility.
The work can spawn protests, yard signs, letters to the editor and general angst — particularly when the trees involved are live oaks or any iconic grand trees.
That's been the case the past couple of years on James Island, where residents have been politically active over plans to more extensively cut the canopy in Riverland Terrace to upgrade the power lines.
Later this month, South Carolina Electric & Gas plans to prune more than 70 miles of overhead distribution lines throughout parts of the city of Charleston, the town of James Island, the James Island Public Service District and other areas of Charleston County, including some on Johns Island.
The schedule isn't related to planned upgrades but is tied to SCE&G's five-year maintenance cycle for pruning and brush clearing. Still, Charleston area residents take the work seriously, often complaining the trimming can be excessive and unsightly.
Troy Miller, president of the Riverland Terrace Neighborhood Association, said residents remain concerned about the long-term upgrade plans that "would require extensive trimming of the trees" but are keeping a close watch on this maintenance.
Miller has talked with neighborhood presidents and elected officials in West Ashley about recent pruning.
"They all stated that there was more extensive trimming than what had taken place in previous five-year cycles," he said.
SCE&G's pruning will continue through 2019. Property owners will be notified by mail or email about two weeks prior to the start of trimming in their area.
To talk about the work with area residents, the company will host a drop-in workshop beginning at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at James Island Town Hall.
Company spokesman Paul Fischer said that overgrown vegetation and tree limbs are the No. 1 reason for power outages in severe weather and the maintenance work is needed to maintain a safe and resilient system.
"Each tree is different in structure, and our pruning practices take that into consideration," he said. "While we respect and appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape surrounding the communities in which we live and work, safety and reliability remain our top priorities."
Some of it will involve the iconic canopy on Wappoo Drive in Riverland Terrace. Previous plans for power line upgrade work led to pushback from residents and elected officials in 2017 and have been put on hold.
The neighborhood is James Island’s oldest and has about 600 homes. About 20 percent of them are in the city of Charleston while the rest are in the county.
Riverland Terrace is to be upgraded from a 4KV transmission line to 24KV, but that work was delayed "in order for (SCE&G) to assess how to proceed with the upgrades of the system," said County Councilwoman Jenny Honeycutt, who represents the area.
Honeycutt is working to get a study approved that would determine what areas might be feasible to bury power lines. Unlike some other tri-county governments, the utility has no agreement with the county to help pay for that effort, so funding sources would have to be identified. And it isn't cheap.
Retrofitting an older neighborhood would cost millions, and residents might have to chip in more than $1,000 a house to get this done.
At Thursday's meeting, representatives from SCE&G, the S.C. Forestry Commission and contractors will be on hand to answer questions, discuss safety, reliability, proper pruning methods and more. Maps marking the streets where trimming is planned will also be on display.
Residents unable to attend the meeting can call 800-251-7234 with questions about tree trimming or go to sceg.com/treetrimming to learn more.
SCE&G Vice President of Electric Operations Bill Turner said the meeting is an opportunity to meet face to face with customers.
“Residents can stop by to review specific tree trimming plans for their neighborhood, and learn more about the critical role tree trimming plays in maintaining a safe, resilient and reliable electric system,” he said.
Miller said the association plans to attend the meeting and have people present during the pruning to make sure it matches previous work.
"It's really a conversation about what's necessary and rational ... to maintain and preserve the canopy consistent with the trimming that has taken place over previous decades," Miller said.