December 27, 2012Councilmember Nancy Vaughan held Duke Energy's feet to the fire at a meeting between Duke Energy and the City of Greensboro on Friday, Dec. 21 in city hall.
To hear the Duke Energy side of the story, what we had in Greensboro was a failure to communicate.
The representatives of Duke Energy didn't back down one inch on the trees that were trimmed, even the ones trimmed all the way to the ground. After the meeting, in answer to a direct question, Duke Energy General Manager Ron Adams said that they only cut trees where the property owner had been notified and given permission.
The street trees that had been on Woodlawn Avenue in Westerwood, according to Adams, were cut only after the city had given its permission but he did want to check that out. Since the trees were in the street right-of-way, Duke Energy didn't need permission from the property owner.
But he said that in every case where trees were cut on private property, Duke had notified the property owner and received permission. That certainly isn't the story that is being told by people who say they came home to find the trees in their yard "trimmed" by Duke crews, which means cut to the ground.
The meeting was chaired by Mayor Robbie Perkins. Also representing the council were Councilmembers Vaughan, Yvonne Johnson and Marikay Abuzuaiter. City Manager Denise Turner Roth and Director of Engineering and Inspections Butch Simmons represented city staff. The urban forester who reportedly signed off on all of this clear cutting, Mike Cusimano, was not at the meeting and was not at the City Council meeting Tuesday, Dec. 18 when the council voted to demand a moratorium on tree cutting by Duke.
If it were not for Vaughan, that tree-cutting moratorium could have fallen by the wayside. After meeting for 40 minutes Perkins was ready to go and tried to get things wrapped up. However, Vaughan asked what Duke Energy's understanding of the moratorium was. Duke Energy Senior Vice President Jeff Corbett said that according to a letter from the city attorney, his understanding was that Duke was not allowed to maintain its lines or replace streetlights.
But he said Duke was anxious to get back to "vegetation management" because every day they didn't work on the system "would eventually have an impact."
Corbett indicated that Duke Energy wanted to get back to work. He said the reason they didn't stop cutting when asked to by the city was because they didn't want to lay off tree crews right before Christmas. Later he said Duke Energy had plenty of work to keep the crews busy in the area, but not in Greensboro, until the City Council meeting on Jan. 15.
He also said they would like to respond to calls for assistance from customers.
The result of the meeting is that Duke Energy and the City of Greensboro will set up a committee with members from the city staff and from Duke Energy to come up with ideas to present to the City Council on Jan. 15, and until then the moratorium on cutting will remain in place.
Johnson said she thought two or three people from the neighborhoods that were devastated should be on the committee. Perkins suggested Randal Romie, who is a landscape architect, and Johnson agreed to accept him. So the committee will be made up of people from the city who agreed with this tree trimming program in the beginning and, according to Duke approved the trees being cut, Duke Energy people who see the man problem as making sure door hangers get on the proper doors and Romie. It's hard to believe this group is going to come up with anything that will mollify the people who came home from work to find their neighborhoods clear cut.
The meeting started with a statement by Perkins, where he said that he and Johnson started out on the council in 1993 and that of all the situations he had dealt with, "I don't recall one where people got so mad. I mean as angry as this one that we have here." He said, "This has turned from an issue into a cause. We've got people all over Greensboro and they are all saying the same thing." He added, "From a council perspective we have to react to that."
Here Perkins was politely corrected by Johnson who said, "We don't have to, we choose to."
Perkins said that Duke had stirred up a big old hornets nest and he expected it to spread beyond Greensboro.
Corbett said, "It's not working right now." He said they were also sorry that it had ignited so quickly, but blamed most of the problem on communication. He said that people demanded reliable electric service and to provide reliable electric service Duke had to trim trees. He said, "It's a balancing act for us and in this case we got out of balance."
Corbett said, "I don't want to make any excuses but we felt like we were communicating, but we weren't."
Johnson thanked him for his apology.
Roth asked for more notice of tree trimming and said that some agreement needed to be reached on the debris left behind when Duke trims trees.
There was a lot of talk about replanting. The right species in the right places is evidently the goal.
Perkins said that much of the present problem was caused by the fact that the trees that are being cut down are old and people don't understand, if they didn't need to be cut down in the past 20 years, why suddenly Duke has to cut them to the ground.
Corbett said, "We don't want to come back every year. It is exceptionally expensive."
Abuzuaiter asked why the trees on Lawndale Drive had been trimmed but not cut down.
Corbett said if they could leave a tree they did.
Vaughan suggested that whether a tree should come down or not should be the property owners' decision.
Adams said, "Our process should be that it is the homeowner decision. All of the trees that we remove should have property owner approval."
Vaughan said people came home from work and found their trees on the ground. Adams said that they should have gotten a door hanger.
When asked about trees in the city right-of-way, Roth said that the city did not go out and look at the trees before they were cut because "It is ultimately Duke Energy's decision."
Although the meeting was open to the press it was not open to the public, so it caused some confusion when Robin Amelkin spoke about what happened to her neighborhood, Oak Ridge Meadows, in 2011. Evidently Amelkin had walked in, been directed to the meeting and sat at the table with everyone else. The city people thought she was with Duke and the Duke people didn't know who she was. Amelkin had the same complaint as other homeowners – Duke Energy came on her and her neighbors' property and "it was really devastating." She also said that although there were a couple of door hangers in the neighborhood, most people had not been notified and the management company was not notified.
Corbett said Duke Energy would share with the city its complete plan for vegetation management in 2013 in the City of Greensboro.
If nothing else comes out of this meeting at least we'll know where they plan to attack next.