Dorchester County's new tree-trimming deal with SCE&G is no more than a gentlemen's agreement asking that utility crews cut only the least amount of a tree needed to safeguard power lines from storm outages.

It doesn't stop the utility from the big cuts that make for some ugly trees.

Federal and state laws, as well as local franchise agreements, exempt crews from regulations designed to protect trees. In a trade-off between providing electricity or protecting scenery, the wires get priority.

That's why when utility crews fire up the saws, neighborhood residents can be left screaming.

South Carolina Electric and Gas trims to national standards that call for tree limbs to be taken down as near to the trunk as possible, to clear lines. It's done for the crews' safety, for the health of the tree and to make sure that when the limbs grow back, they grow away from the line.

The company trims 13,000 miles of lines on a five-year schedule, so crews don't stint on the cuts.

The Dorchester County Council asked for the agreement after neighbors complained recently about trimming around Ayers Circle in Summerville.

"Whacking and hacking," resident Mark Merting called it. "It's random. It's not consistent. They do it for their convenience and no regard for how it looks. Not very customer-friendly."

He's not alone. When crews trimmed Park Circle in North Charleston earlier this year, resident Jerry Lahm characterized it as mangling in a letter to The Post and Courier.

In 2009, James Island residents described trimmed trees along Harbor View Road as butchered, decapitated and chain-sawed. Residents also have complained along Mathis Ferry Road in Mount Pleasant and several other neighborhoods in the Lowcountry.

After resident complaints in Beaufort this year, the city negotiated in October for SCE&G to take the more expensive route of burying lines whenever possible.

After Columbia resident complaints in July, the company suspended tree trimming while its attorneys looked into whether they were violating city law, not by the cuts they made but by not submitting specific-enough work specifications.

As far as the cutting itself goes, local governments stay hands-off.

The Dorchester agreement calls for SCE&G to submit an annual "vegetation maintenance plan" for areas it will cut, and notify the county if grand trees, or large native trees, will be trimmed. But it plainly stipulates, "SCE&G reserves the right to remove any Protected tree … ."

County Councilman David Chinnis called the agreement "cut and dried for what it is," and said its real value is making the company aware of residents' concerns.

Residents, too, need to make sure they plant out of the lines' right of way, he said.

"They have the state on their side to do what they want to do," Chinnis said. "(The agreement) has more to do with building a level of understanding that our citizens have concerns."

Chinnis said that when he called SCE&G with concerns in his neighborhoods, "someone was made aware of it and they did something about it," and he's confident the company will work with the county.

Clarence Wright, SCE&G's Lowcountry district manager, assured the council that that's the case.

"If any item is brought to our attention, I'm pretty confident we can address it pretty quickly," he said.

That didn't placate Merting, who said he's "not very happy at all" with the agreement.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bopete.