Trees and Wires: Bad Mix
A tree pruning crew from Nstar, one
of the utilities that own the telephone
and electric wires in our streets, came to
Auburndale in early August 2010 to clear branches.
Neighbors protested the extent of the tree
cutting. Newton Conservators’ Board Member
AnnaMaria Abernathy produced a document
from City officials that stopped the work.
“Nowhere has there been anything like this
before,” said Abernathy. “It’s fast and cheap, and
it does a job on the trees.” In some cases, tree
canopies were reduced by half. Neighbors’
protests were successful in bringing a
temporary halt to the pruning. Newton’s local
newspaper covered the skirmish. Newton
Conservators President Jane Sender sent an
open letter to the Newton Tab calling for more minimal pruning.
Katherine Howard of the Conservators’ Board
and Chair of the Newton Urban Tree
Commission sent a second open letter.
This small skirmish may by part of a growing
clash, due to a simple fact: trees and wires have
difficulty occupying the same space. Trees are
an important part of the urban forest in a city
like Newton,which has relatively little open
space. Says Howard, “Trees provide shade
and beauty. We enjoy their green, cool shade.”
The wires provide the power and the
communications for the city’s businesses and
homes. Both are important. And they fight for
the same air space.
Before the Wires - Before telephone poles,
trees had the canopy to themselves. The
major roads of Newton were lined with
elms and chestnuts that over-arched the
street, the way the big oaks do today on the
VFW Parkway in West Roxbury. When
telephone and electricity came along, the
nation wanted to “electrify.” In dense urban
neighborhoods, along the scenic parkways
that were developed in the 1930s, and in
commercial centers like Newton’s villages,
the wires were buried, or “undergrounded.”
Elsewhere, for a nation spread out over a big
landscape, it made more sense to pursue a
low-cost approach like overhead wires. We
allowed the utilities to install the poles and
wires that dominate our streets, originally
with one single strand for telephone and
one for electricity.
Then came the cable revolution. Utilities used the same small poles to carry heavier cable lines. Two strands multiplied into a dozen, some of them inches thick. Poles bent under the weight. Instead of replacing poles, the utilities “sistered” new, taller poles up to the old poles and carved large swaths through the old tree canopy. An array of bent and
staggering poles now carries wires through mangled trees.
That, as well as our monthly bills, is the cost for the
Internet and for the much-improved pictures for our tvs.
With all that, still, storms blow in. Falling trees take down
wires, and neighborhoods lose power for days.
Solutions - In 2005, Newton established the Newton Task
Force on Undergrounding Utilities to study the possibility
of burying the wires. Undergrounding is an optimum
solution, as it eliminates the possibility of downed wires.
However, undergrounding is expensive. The utilities claim a
cost of $1 million per mile, or $190 per running foot. (For
reference, the cost of a new road, with paving and utilities,
is quoted by local road builders at about $400 per running
foot.) To underground any significant portion of the road
network would cut into the profits of the utilities. To date,
lawmakers and regulators have been unwilling to do that.
Another avenue is to require more minimal pruning.
Utilities in other communities prune a much narrower
margin around their wires, leaving the trees in healthier
condition. This is the request the Conservators have made
in President Sender’s open letter.
A third is to ask that the utilities be made subject to the
Newton Tree Ordinance. The Ordinance, passed in 1999,
calls for replacement of trees that are removed. The utilities’
heavy pruning, which eventually results in the death of
many street trees, may be considered, in effect, a removal of
trees. For the utilities, compliance with the Ordinance
would be a relatively low-cost solution. Removal of the
trees that have the misfortune to be located beneath the
wires and planting of replacements at more practical
locations would remove the threat to the wires and give
the city back its trees.
The solution may be a combination of these efforts.
Undergrounding may be the best solution on main roads
like Walnut Street, Route 9, and Washington Street, where
trees that take out main trunk lines in a storm can knock
out power to large parts of the community. Minimal
pruning and tree replacement under the Tree Ordinance
may be better solutions on side streets.
Cities and towns have no funding for expensive initiatives
like burying wires underground. The utilities are for-profit
companies. To date, they have been successful in preventing
the imposition of costs for undergrounding, tree replacement,
or other measures that would reduce their profits.
Regulations are on the books that prohibit the kind of
low-cost construction that produces double poles and poles
that list at an angle. But the fines for these practices are so
light that cities and towns in effect are powerless to put the
practices to a stop. To date, the power has belonged to the
But the Conservators have raised an issue. If the Conservators
are successful, it may result in a new balance in the conflict
between the wires and the trees.