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PSE tree trimming worries neighbors along Coles Road

Keith Gilbert, who works for Puget Sound Energy sub-contractor Asplundh, rides his lift truck 70-feet into the air so he can cut branches on Coles Road Wednesday. Some property owners are unhappy with PSE
Keith Gilbert, who works for Puget Sound Energy sub-contractor Asplundh, rides his lift truck 70-feet into the air so he can cut branches on Coles Road Wednesday. Some property owners are unhappy with PSE's tree-trimming program.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

LANGLEY — A group of Coles Road neighbors met Wednesday with Puget Sound Energy to raise concerns about trees being cut down near power lines in their neighborhood.

Earlier in the week, PSE began trimming trees along Coles Road. The Bellevue-based utility has vowed to become more aggressive in removing branches and trees near its lines in the aftermath of storms last winter that left millions in western Washington without power.

At an informal meeting with neighbors, PSE community relations manager Ray Trzynka, consulting engineer Kit Maret and on-site manager Brett Conrad spoke with a dozen concerned residents.

Some who live along the road said they were upset with the tree-trimming work and PSE’s method of telling residents about the company’s vegetation-management efforts.

The trees marked for cutting are growing in PSE’s easement, and the power company hopes cutting branches now will help keep lines up and the lights on during the next storm.

Trees marked for cutting are mostly Douglas firs, some rising 110 feet above the road but within 12 feet of power lines.

Nearby homeowners, however, said the cutting will destroy the aesthetics that drew them to Whidbey Island in the first place.

“This is a beautiful place and we hope to keep it that way,” Terry Noel said.

Local restoration ecologist Marianne Edain asked PSE to do a better job communicating with individual neighborhoods.

“This community needs your respect,” she said.

Trzynka said the utility has made an extra effort to have on-site discussions with individual property owners, including sending out letters that detail what to expect.

While many residents value the picture postcard views of forested South Whidbey, Trzynka said many others are more concerned about power outages.

“I must point out there’s a broader South Whidbey community that doesn’t want to lose power in the winter,” he said. “And, in fact, we own the trees.”

While residents near the cutting operation may prefer to take their chances with limited tree trimming, Maret said the loss of lines on Coles Road could impact those who live outside that neighborhood.

“Over a 10 to 20-year period, Coles Road has been a problem area,” Maret said.

“We really have a challenge over the conflicting priorities of people on South Whidbey; a balancing act between delivering reliable power and maintaining the trees,” she said.

Before the meeting, Edain had asked PSE to alter its policies on cutting.

“Talk to people and tell them what is planned, where, when and why,” Edain wrote the company. “The flip side is to listen to people and actually respond to their concerns and ideas.”

Edain said PSE should also hand out a map and longterm maintenance schedule of this year’s work, so that people can schedule site visits well ahead of time. Individual trees which pose a danger should be marked, along with a promise to cut no more than those marked trees.

She also urged the power company to adopt clear guidelines for tree cutting.

“Years ago we convinced PSE to cut trees 20 feet below the power lines to provide wildlife habitat while the trees very slowly died,” Edain said. “Some trees can have individual branches removed to prevent problems. There needs to be a set of guidelines so that we don’t see wholesale clearing just because its easier or cheaper.”

Edain also asked PSE to commit to using a far stronger “tree wire” for the lower distribution lines.

“We strongly suspect that the cost of switching out the wire will be recouped fairly quickly by avoided power outages,” Edain said.

Several people brought up the issue of underground lines, wondering why tree trimming was considered the solution to power outages.

Earlier this month, PSE released a special independent analysis prepared for the company by KEMA, an energy consulting firm. The KEMA report said putting transmission lines underground could cost $10 million to $20 million per mile. Permits and environmental regulations could drive costs even higher.

Conrad said the utility’s efforts on trimming trees — the company spends about $15 million a year on its vegetation management program — is under study, particularly since the report was issued.

As neighbors queried power company representatives, work continued several hundreds yards south by PSE subcontactors from Asplundh, a company that specializes in vegetation management.

First, Keith Gilbert rode his lift truck 70 feet into the air, then cut branches that could be a danger to the lines below. Meanwhile, Carlos Rodriguez and his coworkers did the heavy lifting. They marked the trees then climbed high into the branches with stout ropes that were anchored to a four-way block.

After shutting down Coles Road to traffic, Rodriguez power-sawed the tree until it fell.

“We want to take down any ‘leaners’ that could cause damage,” Rodriguez explained. “But we can’t go beyond the marker.”

PSE said it will try to convince property owners the value of clearing near power lines on Whidbey Island.

“We will continue to meet with each individual property owner and have committed to making sure that all contacts ‘probe’ for the greatest number of options and solutions in working with the customer,” Trzynka said Thursday. “Our work along Coles Road will continue on those sites where we have had those conversations.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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