December 20, 2012
Impassioned residents – livid over Duke Energy's devastating tree cutting operations in the Westerwood, Sunset Hills and Southside neighborhoods – brought their grievances to the Tuesday, Dec. 18 meeting of the Greensboro
City Council in the council chambers at city hall.
In response, councilmembers, also highly critical of Duke Energy, voted unanimously to take legal action against the company to stop the virtual clear cutting by Duke Energy.
During speakers from the floor, Drew Perry, a resident of Westerwood, said, "I was at the Westerwood meeting last week, where reasonable objections from members of the community to Duke Power's seeming policy of clear cutting old growth trees from the right-of-way or even near the right-of-way of poorly placed power lines was met by executives of Duke Power with a combination of breathtaking incompetence and breathtaking arrogance."
Marianne Veto, also a resident of Westerwood, said, "You simply don't come into a city and drastically cut trees down, leaving an expensive mess that in most cases the homeowner or the city are responsible for."
Duke Energy says that the debris and tree trunks left after cutting down or trimming a tree are not its responsibility.
In Westerwood this includes trees in both public and private rights-of-ways, since many residences have utility lines running through both their front and rear yards. The city plans to remove the debris left in the public right-of-way.
Before the speakers Greensboro
Mayor Robbie Perkins directed Deputy City Manager Jim Westmoreland to give a summary of the issue.
Westmoreland said that in response to a letter the City Council sent to Duke Energy asking for a delay, the company had stayed its operations in Sunset Hills and Westerwood until after the holidays.
The letter had requested a three-month moratorium on tree cutting in Greensboro
while the issues are sorted out.
All councilmembers said they were in support of sending the letter, even if they did not have the opportunity to sign it.
Westmoreland said the ability of the city to regulate Duke Energy was limited because it gets its authority from the North Carolina Utilities Commission. However, Westmoreland also said that per the franchise agreement with Greensboro
Duke Energy is required to follow city ordinances.
"We have found that we have a public tree ordinance that we have not been using," Westmoreland said. He said that staff would be looking into the issue to find if the ordinance could be used to put restrictions on Duke Energy.
The ordinance includes several limitations including the requirement that property owners within 100 feet of a tree be given 30 days notice of its removal, and that the parks and recreation director or his designee must approve tree topping.
However, after the meeting, Westmoreland said he was not sure how much regulatory authority an ordinance could give to the city.
During speakers from the floor, Gail Barger of Fairmont Street showed before and after pictures of a section of Woodlawn Avenue where a line of trees had been taken down to the ground.
"Maybe we need to take a legal track at this point," said Councilmember Nancy Vaughan after seeing the images. She asked City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan about the possibility of issuing a cease-and-desist order to buy the city more time. "Once these trees are down, they're down. They're not coming back," she said.
Shah-Khan said he could look into it, although the utility commission preempts a lot of the city's authority.
Barger asked if the city had signed off on the cutting, and Westmoreland said that although the city's arborist, Mike Cusimano, reviewed and advised Duke Energy's pruning operations, the decision was ultimately up to Duke Energy.
At the neighborhood meeting Dec. 13, Cusimano said he had not disagreed with any of Duke Energy's cutting plans.
Several more residents spoke, including residents of Southside, who showed pictures of a natural area that had been clear-cut between their homes and Murrow Boulevard.
Michelle Ferrier of Southside showed before and after pictures of the cutting, which she said removed an important sight, sound and safety barrier.
Ferrier said that tree trunks and debris had been left behind after the cutting. "Duke Energy claims their policy is to leave tree trimmings in place for firewood, stacked in neat piles. Clearly that is not the case in our neighborhood," she said as she showed slides depicting large logs and branches strewn haphazardly on the ground, which she said left Southside residents with thousands of dollars of expenses.
She said the only solution offered by Duke Energy was to cut the debris into smaller pieces to rot in place.
"This city invested significant money in rebuilding Southside neighborhood nearly 10 years ago," she said, asking the city to help maintain the vision for the neighborhood as a safe, green place in the face of Duke Energy's policies.
Eric Patton, president of the Sunset Hills Neighborhood Association, said he was not aware of any official word from Duke Energy that they were in fact going to wait until after the holidays to resume work.
After the residents spoke, Councilmember Yvonne Johnson called Duke Energy District Manager Davis Montgomery to the podium to respond to the issue. "I think it's just absolute devastation," Johnson said.
Montgomery said that Duke Energy has a vegetation management plan filed with the Utilities Commission. "We follow that plan, the way that they have it outlined, and we do it the same way in every town that we serve and we have done it that way for several years," he said.
Johnson asked, "Would Duke Power be willing to look at a compromise that's not as invasive and as destructive as some of what I've seen?"
Montgomery dodged the question by saying that his company had been talking with the city about ways they could adjust part of the process. "We've discussed some ways that we could do communication in a different way," he said.
Montgomery said that his company does have a communication process that they follow. "We use a door hanger to notify individuals of what's about to take place, and there's a name and a number on there that they can contact." He said the door hangers may not have been secure in every case so some residents might not have seen them.
Councilmember Dianne Bellamy-Small later pointed out that there wasn't much point in notifying people of what was about to happen if there was nothing they could do about it.
Johnson asked if they were going to honor the agreement to stop tree cutting activities until after the holidays.
Montgomery responded that they had pulled out of Westerwood and Sunset Hills. "We have moved those crews to another circuit that is on the western side of town as they continue to work," he said.
The council in their letter had requested a three-month halt to Duke Energy's tree cutting operations. Montgomery said Duke Energy planned to resume work sometime after the holidays.
Vaughan then made a motion. "I would like to make a motion that this city commits and also instructs our legal department and city attorney to file a cease-and-desist order tomorrow morning with the proper authority to give us a chance to work through this problem," she said....continued on page 2