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Petition to stop NStar clear-cutting in Needham gains steam

In Milton in September 2010, NStar cut tree limbs in an effort to keep them from damaging utility lines.

Photos by David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2010

In Milton in September 2010, NStar cut tree limbs in an effort to keep them from damaging utility lines.

A petition by Needham residents to halt clear-cutting by NStar of trees around high-voltage transmission lines that run through town has gained about 600 signatures, according to the petition’s coordinator.

The petition was posted online early this month by Needham’s Trees,  a group started by Needham resident Mark McDonough to protest the proposed cutting. Signatures have been collected both online and by hard copies circulated around town.

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“I’m happy to take down some of the trees in my yard. That’s fine with me, and I get it. I’m on a transmission line and that’s the price of being on a transmission line,” he said. “However, it doesn’t make sense to cut them all down. I just need [NStar] to be reasonable.”

NStar announced this summer its plans to cut down trees along a four-mile stretch of transmission lines that run through Needham and deliver electricity to tens of thousands of customers. Clear-cutting in other towns has drawn the wrath of residents, who say the approach is too drastic.

NStar adopted the clear-cutting policy in 2010 as a way to ensure that falling trees don’t cause massive power outages along high-voltage wires. The clear-cutting plan does not affect lower-voltage distribution lines that run through neighborhoods. 

The petition calls for Northeast Utilities, the parent company of NStar, to “cease its planned clear-cutting of all trees and work together with its neighbors, town officials, and state agencies in order to provide reliable electric service without decimating the environment of the Needham neighborhoods.”

It contains specific requests that Northeast Utilities limit vegetation removal, implement a phased vegetation management approach rather than a clear-cutting approach, resolve safety and environmental concerns regarding clear-cutting, and communicate about the scope of the cutting in writing with abutters.

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“We demand that the Northeast Utilities behave as a good and reasonable neighbor, a responsible corporate citizen and adhere to its own statement of environmental stewardship: ‘The operational activities of our company are conducted with an awareness of the potential environmental impacts created by our infrastructure.’”

A spokeswoman for NStar said that the utility is aware of the petition, and is working to be responsive.

“We’re aware of the concerns in Needham, and that’s why we’re in constant contact with town officials on this issue,” said Caroline Pretyman, NStar spokeswoman.

The utility, she said, is not doing any tree-cutting work in town until after it finishes a survey of its rights of way, requested by the town, to confirm the boundaries and illustrate clearly for residents where the rights of way fall.

That process, she said, could take several weeks.

NStar is also in the process of responding to a letter from town and state officials asking the utility to back off its tree-cutting plan, said Pretyman. NStar has agreed not to begin cutting until after it responds.

Pretyman said that though NStar is working to alleviate resident concerns about its tree-cutting plans, the utility is not considering modifications to its policy, which requires that all trees directly below the transmission lines that have the potential to grow higher than 3 feet be cut down, and all trees in a border zone that have the potential to grow higher than 15 feet be cut down.

“We feel this is important work we need to do,” she said. She pointed to a power outage in Connecticut earlier this month caused by a single tree falling on a high-voltage transmission line that knocked out power for 30,000 residents and businesses.

“It’s sort of like the example we keep talking about, and this is the actual reality,” she said.

Pretyman said that the utility is meeting with residents in towns, including Wayland, where trees have already been cut to discuss mitigation efforts, including stump grinding and the replacement of vegetation with wire-friendly species. NStar is covering the cost of those plantings for residents who request it, she said.

McDonough said that he hopes Needham’s Trees and the petition can get the utility to soften its approach, though he acknowledged that legally, NStar is within its rights to clear-cut because it holds easements on all the land along the right of way.

“Under the law, legally, they can cut whatever they want,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense, and I think it makes them a bad neighbor.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.

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