For more than 20 years, pine trees surrounded Ellen Sard’s Sudbury backyard. But in June her half-acre was transformed by crews clearing vegetation around high-voltage transmission lines for NStar.
In less than two hours, the pines she had planted were all chopped down.
“It was such a violation,” said Sard, who acknowledges that NStar has an easement on the property. Now, 22 stumps dot her backyard, and she has a clear view of the towering power lines.
Officials at NStar, which came under heavy criticism after widespread power outages last year, say clear-cutting around transmission lines is the only way to guarantee consistently reliable power. But communities are increasingly up in arms over the the utility’s integrated vegetation management program, launched in 2010. In Sudbury, tensions between tree cutters and residents ran so high that a police detail was called in to keep the peace.
“For them to come in and just clear cut — it’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Michael Retzky, chairman of the Park and Recreation Commission in Needham, where officials vow to fight the utility’s plans. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
This year, NStar has cleared trees in Sherborn, Framingham, Natick, Wayland, and Sudbury. Now they are starting on a 17-mile stretch of transmission lines that runs from Southborough to West Roxbury.
“Trees are the number-one cause of power outages,” said Michael Durand, spokesman for NStar. “As a utility, we have an obligation to do everything in our power to prevent them.”
Durand pointed to a massive Northeast blackout in 2003 that cut off power to nearly 50 million people in the United States and 10 million more people in Canada after high-voltage lines came in contact with tree branches in northeastern Ohio. That blackout, he said, is what inspired NStar’s new policy.
So far, communities have had no success stopping NStar, which holds easements for its rights of way and, like all utilities, is required by federal regulations to have a vegetation management plan to prevent power outages along transmission lines.
A measure requiring utilities to review such plans with the state Department of Public Utilities and affected municipalities is awaiting approval in the Legislature and could become effective early next month, said state Representative Denise Garlick, a Needham Democrat who worked on the measure.
The measure would strengthen the town’s ability to negotiate with NStar over mitigation and restoration, she said, but it would not legally bar NStar from continuing its work.
Last August, Tropical Storm Irene knocked out power for more than 500,000 NStar customers. Last October, more than 200,000 NStar customers lost power after a snowstorm — and many of those outages, said Durand, were caused by falling trees. The utility is currently facing the possibility of hefty fines over its response to the two storms after the Department of Public Utilities was flooded with complaints, according to a spokeswoman for the department. Some of those complaints, she said, concerned the utility’s failure to cut down trees that ended up falling into power lines.
Under NStar’s policy, no trees with the potential to grow higher than 3 feet will be allowed to remain under high-voltage transmission wires; no trees with the potential to grow higher than 15 feet will be allowed to remain in the border zone. The policy does not apply to lower-voltage distribution power lines that run along neighborhood streets.
Needham officials are pushing for a middle ground — selective cutting, for example — but NStar says that the only sure way to prevent large-scale outages is to take trees down completely. Cutting off the tops of trees, as the utility used to do, is no longer working, said Durand — it actually weakens trees over time and makes them more prone to toppling onto wires.
About 4 miles of high-voltage transmission lines run the length of Needham: The trees within 100 feet of them will be clear-cut.
The lines run along commuter rail train tracks, through neighborhoods and alongside town fields, like DeFazio Park. The tracks are elevated — town officials fear erosion if the trees anchoring the dirt are removed — and neighbors say the trees that will be cut serve as a buffer for neighbors from the sound, pollution, and view of the train tracks. Residents worry that the value of their homes will fall if the trees are chopped down.
“Right now, my house faces vegetation,” said Paul Kelly, an abuttor who lives near DeFazio. “If they do what they say, my house will face scorched earth.”
In Sudbury, selectmen voted symbolically earlier this year to declare a moratorium on NStar’s clear-cutting. “It didn’t didn’t have any teeth to it,” said Larry O’Brien, chairman of the board. “We don’t have the power to stop NStar.”
The police detail was called in to keep things calm as tree crews worked. Still, between the end of the workday on June 20 and the morning of June 21, someone vandalized tree-clearing machinery, causing $5,000 worth of damage, according to Sudbury Police Lieutenant Scott Nix.
The incident is still under investigation, he said.
In Wayland, Meadowview Road resident Robert Noa filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court to stop NStar from cutting down his trees.
It bought him a little time, but early this month a judge ruled that NStar’s easement does, indeed, grant the utility the right to clear his property.
“I want hot water and cold beer just as much as anybody else does, I really do,” Noa said. “I am not and never have been trying to prevent them from doing maintenance and tree work. But . . . their policy has been topping and trimming trees. And it has demonstrably worked.”
Still, Needham officials remain hopeful that they can persuade NStar to scale back. Garlick is working with NStar to plan a meeting so town representatives can lay out their case.
No one in town is disputing the need for reliable electricity, but town officials say that must be balanced against the fact that clear-cutting trees is too drastic a solution.
“Even if they have the technical authority to do what they’re proposing to do,” said Needham selectman Moe Handel, “I don’t believe they have the moral right to degrade the quality of people’s lives along a path that their transmission lines go through.”