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 power company.

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.

–Eric Reenstierna