Peters neighborhood fights utility's tree cutting

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Gina and Layne Ciminel live in one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Peters.

Lawns on Windermere Court are tended by professional landscapers, no litter is visible, and the roads are free of potholes. Several houses on the street are for sale, with asking prices ranging from about $560,000 to $800,000.

In the Ciminels’ backyard, turkeys, pheasant, deer and other wildlife roam. Ornamental pear trees in each yard are a nod to the development’s beginnings, as part of nearby Simmons Farms. The Ciminels’ yard contains three fully grown, 15-foot pear trees and several small spruce.

Power lines threaten neighborhood trees

First Energy plans to cut down all trees within 100 feet of their power lines despite protest from residents of a neighborhood that lies in their path. (Video by Connor Mulvaney; 7/24/2014)

But, the Ciminels’‍ trees are marked for death.

Contractors with Asplundh Tree Expert Co. painted the trees with red X’s on June 13 and left a notice on the family’s front door: The trees are within a 100-foot right of way owned by electric utility FirstEnergy Corp. Although it’s difficult to imagine how the trees could grow tall enough to touch the 138,000-kilovolt transmission lines overhead, they would need to be removed.

The story was the same next door, where even a dwarf pear tree no taller than about 3 feet was marked with red paint.

Mrs. Ciminel is heartbroken at the prospect of losing the trees. “We bought this house for the backyard,” she said. “Do I have to stand in front of the chainsaws to stop them?”

So far, FirstEnergy officials have resisted efforts by the Ciminels and their neighbors to compromise on the tree cutting by requiring property owners to maintain their trees at a certain height. The neighborhood homeowners association offered to amend its covenants to require property owners along the power line route to prune trees, but the company rejected the offer.

“We don’‍t have a tolerance for any trees that could grow above 10 feet,” company spokesman Todd Meyers said. “Sometimes ornamental trees just keep growing and growing. When you have tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines, you don‘‍t have room for error.”

Government officials have weighed in on the matter, including Peters council members; state Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair; and state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon.

“It strikes me as a completely bad-neighbor policy,” said Mr. Maher, who was in Harrisburg but participated via Skype during a recent town hall meeting convened to discuss the issue.

“In every conversation we had with them, it was ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,’ ” said Peters council President James Berquist, who met with company officials.

Headquartered in Akron, Ohio, the $15 billion diversified energy company operates in six states with one of the nation's largest investor-owned electric systems. It acquired the area’s previous electric company, West Penn Power, in 2011.

Mrs. Ciminel and her neighbors have banded together, posting signs throughout their 45-home development and at other locations along the 7-mile route of the transmission towers, which stand more than 50 feet tall. The township is peppered with yard signs saying: “Stop First Energy From Removing Our Trees.”

Mr. Meyers said the transmission line feeds three substations in the area and provides power for about 24,000 customers. The tree-cutting planned in Peters is part of the maintenance of 4,600 miles of transmission and distribution lines, including 400 trees that will be cleared by the company this year at a cost of $25 million.

“We have to make sure there won’t be any problems out there,” he said. “We can’‍t wait until there’s an imminent threat with the line before we trim. We have to know our rights of way are clear.”

If a tree within the company’s right of way falls on a power line, it’‍s the company’‘s sole responsibility to repair the line, Mr. Meyers said.

The company is offering property owners $50 gift cards for every five trees cut down.

Mr. Maher told homeowners that they could file complaints with the Public Utility Commission and then, if necessary, appeal to Common Pleas Court, where a judge could decide the terms of the right-of-way agreement signed in 1960. The terms of the original easement agreement give the utility rights to construct and maintain transmission towers, including managing vegetation that could interfere with the lines.

A lawyer consulted by the homeowners told them they could pursue a court case with forestry experts for $24,000 to $30,000.

Mr. Maher said neither the state nor federal government are requiring the company to clear the transmission lines in Peters.

“[The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] isn’t directing that this happen,” said Mr. Maher, who said the 138,000-kilovolt power lines are not powerful enough to warrant jurisdiction from the agency. Federal commission oversight is reserved for transmission lines of 200,000 kilovolts or greater.

Mr. Meyers said the company adheres to standards outlined by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., FERC and other utility commissions. And, the company’s policy of removing trees and vegetation has resulted in more reliable electric service for customers, he said.

In 2010, about 402,000 customers experienced tree-related power outages, Mr. Meyers said. By the end of last year, that number was down by about half. At the end of 2011, tree-related damage accounted for 33 percent of all power outages; two years later, that was reduced to 29 percent, he said.

Homeowners not in the path of the Peters power lines are concerned about the spraying of herbicides, which the company has told homeowners it plans to do, and the clear-cutting of a small forest of mature, roughly 40-year-old trees at a storm water retention pond that is shared as common ground owned by the township.

Mr. Meyers said that the site doesn’t have dense vegetation, individual tree trunks will be sprayed and mass spraying of herbicides will not be done unless warranted. Denser vegetation is treated according to package directions, which have been approved by the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.

The Windemere homeowners hope to avoid litigation and work out a compromise with the utility. But each time she leaves her home, Mrs. Ciminel worries that she will return to a barren backyard.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159.

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