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Attack of the Mutant Half-Trees

If you've driven down Markham Ave., or Broad St., or Urban Ave., or Club Blvd. recently, perhaps you've seen the latest addition to the neighborhood -- the unsightly, deformed remnants of oak trees after an unfortunately, but certainly not chance, encounter with contractors working for Duke Power:


Yes, our good friends at the local utility are at it again, cutting back street trees to "ensure an acceptable level of service" (read: to keep branches from taking out electrical service lines to houses.)

A noble goal, and one which -- in the wake of the ferocious ice storms earlier this decade -- few would disagree with. But many, including scores of residents in the Watts-Hillandale and Trinity Park neighborhoods, are up in arms about the severity and intensity of this year's pruning. (For more visual evidence of what the trees look like post-pruning, check out the photos at Beth Ruiz's web site.)

Like the City of Oaks to our southeast, the pruning of these so-called street trees is the contractual responsibility of the local power company. In Raleigh, though, the pruning is done on a three-year cycle, which is more costly but which results to less aesthetic impact on the trees. (They don't call the capital city the 'City of Oaks' for nothing, eh?) In Derm, you're looking at eight years between cutbacks, so Duke Power is free to call in Leatherface Arborial Services, Inc. to do the dirty work.

Now, at least one W-H neighbor has pointed out that this is something the trees have survived in the past, pointing to trees similarly cut back in the last cycle that have now returned to their full beauty. And she may be right -- I very much hope she is. But our street trees are old, and major pruning of this nature makes these trees more susceptible to disease and infirmity. Seems better not to take a risk with these fixtures of the neighborhood.

Homeowners on affected streets certainly have a financial interest in seeing the canopy continue; by one accounting on the W-H listserv, mature tree plantings on a property can increase the home's value by up to $20,000. But there are significant environmental benefits to our tree-filled streets. Leafy canopies provide shade in the summer that reduces the need for air conditioning, while the denuded trees in winter let sunlight shine through that naturally heats homes in turn.

Which means, of course, that street trees reduce urban neighborhoods' use of electrical power. (Only the most conspiratorially-minded, myself not included in this number, would suggest that Duke Power's dislike of street trees is motivated by self-interest.)

One solution would be to bury the electrical service lines underground, as is done in new-construction neighborhoods (in fact, this is a requirement.) This has been bandied about in the past, and always pooh-poohed by the power company due to cost. What's interesting, though, is that it's not possible to get a straight answer from anyone on what that cost would be. The number floated by Duke Power a few years ago, $1,000 per linear foot or over $5 million a mile, was a 'shock' to many folks' systems.

An interesting alternative was floated by a neighbor at a recent Trinity Park neighborhood association meeting, where the subject came up -- why not run the Duke Power lines back along the alleyways at the rear of property lines, where the visual impact of cuttings would have less impact? Less-expensive overhead lines would still be feasible, making the power company happy, while preserving the tree canopy that Durhamites have come to know and love.

Unfortunately, the power company has different ideas. At the same meeting, Phil Roy of Duke Power distributed handouts from the Arbor Day Foundation, encouraging the city to follow the Foundation's "Right Tree in the Right Place" guidelines. These guidelines, as shown at right, would encourage the planting of 25'-or-lower trees at street level, then building up to full-height tall trees nearer to the homes on every street.


From the power company's perspective, hey, that's a great idea. No more pruning, no more annoying street trees with large overhanging canopies to get in the way of our power lines. Huzzah!

My response: Find me an issue of Southern Living that celebrates beautiful, tree-lined streets with overhanging canopies. It won't take long. Now, find one that celebrates dogwoods or crabapples lining the street, with the sun shining above the roadway.

Don't worry, I'll wait for it.

There are both aesthetic and environmental reasons to want to preserve the beauty of the current street canopy. Alternatives like rear-lot and alleyway powerlines, or more frequent pruning of the sort seen in Raleigh, would be a more appropriate solution to the problem.

Put another way: which of these two photos below represents the future you want to see for Durham's urban neighborhoods?


Above: The intersection of Duke & Knox, looking northward -- from the dawn of the Trinity Park neighborhood in its earliest days, to 2007. Witness the impact of the small trees in the first photo, now grown to a full street canopy. Personally, I like the second photo better. (Big thanks to Gary over at Endangered Durham for the photo.)

What are the next steps? Well, city councilman Mike Woodard (a strong supporter of urban neighborhood interests) and members of the City staff are sitting down with Duke Power representatives on Tuesday to talk about this year's pruning cycle and what could be done to balance power company and neighborhood interests. Look for an update after that meeting.

If you'd like to try fighting the power (company) yourself, the contact person suggested on the W-H listserv is Davis Montgomery, business relationship manager at Duke Power ([email protected], 919-687-3036).



In my mind, the first question is "Whose trees?" If the trees belong to the power company, they're basically free to whack the heck out of them, much as you would if the trees were in your yard. If the trees do belong to the property owner, then the power company isn't necessarily free to do anything. However, I feel then that the property owner then should take responsibility for what happens if their tree takes out the power to their neighbors. How many people want to pay for when their neighbor's power goes out during a storm? Raise your hands, please. :)

What I imagine is actually the case here is that the power company has right-of way down the corridor where the lines are, and can basically do what they want to them. However, they don't totally whack them -- they trim them back. One could argue about the extent of the trimming, but since I'm neither trained as an arborist or a residential power engineer, all I can do is say what I think it looks like. Could it look better? Well, yes. Could it look worse? Well, yes. And since more than aesthetics feeds into the decision, my aesthetic input isn't worth that much anyway (nor, in my mind, is a lot of other folks').

What I *have* noticed is that the trimming cycle in my neighborhood seems to be much closer than 8 years (it seems like someone's done trimming around here every three years or so, more or less). And while stuff in my neighborhood is occasionally trimmed when I think it shouldn't be, I'm also occasionally surprised at what is left.

What I've also noticed is that some of the people who complain the most about the tree-trimming are also the people who complain the most when their power goes out for a long period of time. At least, that's what happened in my neighborhood during the last big outage. This makes me tend to think that those folks are going to complain pretty much no matter what.

Now, do I want a nice-looking neighborhood? Yes, of course I do, just like I also want power. The underground power line idea makes the most sense, and I really do like the way things look in the areas that already have restrictions about outdoor overhead wiring. But I seem to remember that during the last big power outage, the question was asked "How much would it cost to bury *all* of NC's overhead power lines? The answer was staggering -- something like $75 billion. I can't find that amount online, but this document from SCANA seems to suggest that amount is in the right ballpark:

Whatever figure the amount was, I also seem to remember that it was supposed to double the power bill for everyone in the state for something like 50 years. The document above also contains another figure I've seen: that underground power construction costs 5-10 times what overhead construction does. There are other tidbits in there of interest, but of course everyone should feel free to come up with their own data, or complain about how much money the power company makes, or whatever.

A final note: I worked for a summer as a grunt (unskilled labor) for a private electrical construction company based in SC. My brother also worked for the same company. He told me of some work they did in a local power company's right-of-way. Despite that they don't have to justify anything they do to stuff in the right-of-way, they re-landscaped an area near someone's home, and replanted grass seed where some grass had been torn up. The homeowner then complained to the power company that the grass seed planted wasn't the same as what he'd put down there and in his yard. The power company actually sent someone back, replanted the area with the type of seed the homeowner specified, and even fertilized the area. The homeowner then complained again that, when *he* mowed the area (again, not his lawn, but the area in the right-of-way), the grass had grown too well, and the leavings from *his* mowing had hit the side of his house, staining his siding. I don't know what happened after that, but I hope the guy went and got a life. :)


I would be very skeptical of any cost estimates given by power companies. Duke Energy is a government-sanctioned monopoly. That part is OK, because power delivery is a "natural monopoly", which means that the cost of multiple entrants into the market is prohibitively expensive. It just wouldn't make sense for three companies to maintain their own grid of power lines to people's homes.

The problematic part is that the natural monopoly is a "for-profit" enterprise. Duke Energy's primary responsibility is to generate profit for it's shareholders, and it generates annual profits in the billions. As power subscribers, we all fund these shareholder profits. Duke Energy lobbies state and local representatives in order to get permission to charge excessive rates. Obviously, they will also try to reduce expenses associated with infrastructure improvements in order to increase profit for shareholders.

I'm all for free markets and competition, and that's why I think that natural monopolies should be controlled by municipalities, much like drinking water is today. If competition isn't taking place, then the citizens need to take control. It's estimated that Dennis Kucinich saved Cleveland residents almost 200 million dollars in a ten-year period by refusing to sell Cleveland Public Power. That would pay for a lot of buried power lines, wouldn't it?


Chris, I agree with all that, and I don't necessarily automatically believe anything Duke Power (for example) says. I invite you to come up with your own figures for how much it would cost to put all of NC's overhead electrical construction underground. Until you or someone else does, and can back up your numbers, we're just pissing in the wind. And I don't think that having the power companies being owned by municipalities is automatically going to save anyone money or make power lines magically become buried. Even assuming that the Kuchnich/$200 million figure is correct (and why should I believe that figure any more than I do the $75 billion one I remember?) and applicable to the current situation, how far do you think $20 million/year would go toward putting, say, all of NC's power lines underground?


Chris - the trees in question are virtually all on the city's right-of-way. Which explains why the city is the point of contact between the citizens and the power company on this.

My big question is this. In the early part of the 21st century, the city of Durham still has miles of unpaved roads, some of them in the vicinity of downtown. There are additional dozens of miles of streets without sidewalks. And there really isn't a program in place to fix that, despite several bond referenda and numerous commitments from the political leadership of the city. It's the sheerest utopianism to imagine that the city of Durham could begin to undertake the project of moving power lines underground when it hasn't figure out how to pave all of its streets or build all of its sidewalks.

And please, don't get me started on what would certainly give the appearance of being yet another taxpayer based program to raise property values in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood.


Joseph, I don't think that calculating the full price tag for burying all power lines is particularly important. It actually seems like an excuse for inaction to me. When the power companies extend their grid into new neighborhoods, they are making a large capital expenditure, and it will take many years for them to recover the cost of the investment in the neighborhood. In older communities, however, this initial investment has already been paid for - probably many years ago. It's now pure profit for the power companies. It seems obvious that a certain amount of money would be set aside each year for burying power lines, and the work would be performed on the oldest existing power lines first. Duke Energy should be required to invest in older communities, and not just new development.

Michael Bacon

Barry: Most of the unpaved streets in the near vicinity of downtown are still that way because the owners of adjacent properties have expressed opposition to paving them. Why wouldn't you want your street paved, you might ask? Well, it sure as hell cuts down on the traffic in front of your house... That's not true for all of them, but certainly most.

Joe: I really don't like how this gets cast as "bury all of NC's power lines" and "don't bury any." I'd like to see all power lines in neighborhoods *above a certain residential density* buried. I'd wager that the vast majority of that $75 billion cost is in lines that are strung out to houses sitting on 20 acres of land, or similar. Should that whole stretch be underground? Of course not, that's ridiculous. I can also imagine that a lot of that estimate is if you were to try to, all at once, rip up the streets and put the power lines down, and repave them.

I'm guessing you could, with massively reduced expense, institute a program under which, over the next 10 years, every time a street was resurfaced or water line rebuilt, you used that opportunity to put the power lines underground, and only in areas where residential density is high. Why high density? Because a mile of underground power in the middle of Durham means you've added underground power to a lot more customers than a mile of underground power in, say, southern Person County.

I advocate for density-rating of a lot of services, like Kevin's earlier post on rec centers, and I've been asked once or twice what I have against rural residents. My response: absolutely nothing. I very much like living in the country, and may end up there myself some day. But when you move into an urban area, you make some tradeoffs. You're accepting having lots of people you don't know living close to you, more noise, more traffic, less land, higher taxes, and higher property costs. The reason you do this is to get easier and better access to services. If I lived in southern Person County, I'd just buy a generator. But I live 1000 feet from an electric substation, and can see high voltage transfer lines from my front yard. I don't think my power should be out for five days in an ice storm, and I don't think I should have to sacrifice giant oak trees on city streets to do this.


Michael: I said that because that's the figure I remember from what I think I read in the newspaper after a large power outage several years ago. I might be wrong. But the important part was the doubling power bills for the next 50 years (or 25 years or whatever it was). I also imagine that while rural customers would face the problem of longer runs to be buried, they'd have to their advantage that the costs for said re-construction would be less. And those power lines and mutilated trees aren't any prettier in the country than in the city, nor is power loss less of an inconvenience (perhaps more, when you lose your water pump). In fact, this sort of seems like lower population areas would be subsidizing costs in higher population ones. Which I guess is ok, since all those folks who benefited from REA (q.v. http://newdeal.feri.org/tva/tva10.htm ) should now pay that money back, right? Maybe not.

In any case, if you want to get a "bury some power lines" program going, that's great, but I would like to know how it's going to be paid for, which means (again) that someone is going to have to come up with some figures that satisfy everyone concerned, or at least get the right legislation in the right places pushed through.

Actually, this whole thread has caused me to wonder if the buildup of resource-intensive agricultural use (like hog farming) in rural areas would be less if, say, some large rural power consumers (like hog farmers) actually paid what would have otherwise (i.e., without rural electrification) been full price for their electricity? Or to put it another way, I wonder if all those smelly hog farms and chicken houses would wind up a lot closer to the average end-consumer? But I'm way OT here, so I better stop.


Joseph, when you write "I would like to know how it's going to be paid for," I hope you understand that the power companies are just stealing money from consumers. It happens in a variety of industries that lobby the government so they don't have to compete. For example, I work in the telecommunications industry. We told local governments that we needed to charge higher rates, and make higher profits, so that we could run fiberoptic lines to everybody's house. There was never any intent to build that network. It was just an excuse to steal money. I'm quite sure that the same sorts of bogus promises of future investment are made by the power companies. That's how the game is played.

The positive part is that the whole thing is just a house of cards. Public pressure could convince the power companies to steal less, and invest more of that excess cash. A couple of big storms could do the trick . . .

Michael Bacon

Joe: I'm not following you here. First off, power line damages are paid for by the electric companies, not consumers. With that, I can't see how rural customers would be subsidizing urban users. Besides, I think the biggest cost in repairing downed power lines comes in transformer replacement, which is pretty directly related to usage. (more users=more transformers) Second: power lines to rural customers are often routed along more open expanses, and aren't forced to share scarce right-of-way with old street trees. There's simply more flexibility in the country. Third: rural trees are less of a scarce commodity than urban ones. We only get so many places to put trees in the middle of the city.

But again, I'm feeling the need to restate my core argument here: cities exist, particularly those like Durham with no defining natural feature, because of efficiencies in services and economies created by close proximity. The same is very much true for electrical services. You bury one mile of power line in the middle of the city, you're going to add value to the electrical service of a far greater number of people than by burying a mile in the country, for not much more cost.

Who pays for it? Well, that's a pretty good question. I would say that burying power lines, and likewise not destroying trees in the process, adds value to real estate in the area -- value that I would expect to be reflected in property values. That means increased city revenues. (And this wouldn't really require legislation -- barring a statewide mandate, it's more of an issue that's negotiated between the municipality and the utility.)

Given that I'm trying to get about six other "programs" going right now, I doubt I'm about to rush out tomorrow and push for buried power lines, but if/when I do get around to it, I'd say that I'd try to come up with some best estimates of what the increase in revenue would look like for various density levels in the city were the power lines there buried. From that, you could estimate how much of a bond that increased revenue would support for a bond issued today. It probably wouldn't cover the complete cost, but might cover most of it, and the remaining could be covered with property tax income. Now, I realize this means people who weren't having their lines buried would be paying part of that bond, so you have to make compromises. On the one hand, the fewer lines in the city that can be taken out by an ice storm, the more quickly the remaining ones can be repaired by a fixed set of workers. (the limiting factors in the delays of the great ice storm of wheneveritwas as few years ago.) Or, you throw some other political bone to more suburban and rural taxpayers inside city limits, and make it a packaged deal. I'd say that politically, it's eminently doable, if someone has the energy to put into making it happen. (I don't at the moment.)


Chris: Ok, when I say "I would like to know how it's going to be paid for," feel free to substitute "How is someone going to convince the right people in the right places that the power companies are 'stealing money from consumers' and should put more money into burying power lines without raising rates?" I don't think it's unreasonable to ask how that's going to happen.

I do understand that companies put pressure on government to do things for them. For instance, my understanding is that a lot of the fiber optic network you mention did in fact get built (not to the house, of course, but as network backbone), and is now sitting around as excess capacity or "dark fiber":


Yes, it was a waste, which is probably why Google can try to buy it up:


[I'm sure you know about all or some of this, but I imagine you're not the only person reading this; perhaps no one is :) ]. I'm not stupid: I can see that my "communications" bills have gone up at the same time companies have beaten my doors down trying to sell me communications packages. I'd like to know something similar is not going to happen with an effort to bury outdoor power wiring. If it makes things cheaper, great. If it costs a little more, but makes things more reliable and attractive, I'll probably go for it too. But if it just winds up costing me a lot of money, I'm going to be upset. I'm not going to jump from "the power companies are ripping me off" to "power lines should be buried because it'll save me money." At least, I'm not going to back it without some evidence that it actually will save me money. For all I know, the power companies are just trying to rip me off again by charging a lot to bury all their infrastructure. But I do know that someone, somewhere will have to be paid something to do the digging, re-wiring, and burying.

What this whole thing comes down to is how can we keep our city attractive and keep our services reliable at reasonable cost. I don't think that's a bad goal at all -- I think it's great. But just saying that the power companies are bad to be cutting trees and are ripping us off isn't helpful, IMO.

Michael: If you give a subset of services to one subgroup and not to another when both groups are paying for the set, I think the group not benefiting is going to be able to say they're paying for something they're not getting.

"You bury one mile of power line in the middle of the city, you're going to add value to the electrical service of a far greater number of people than by burying a mile in the country, for not much more cost." -- I'm not sure I agree with the entirety of that statement. But the point again is that until someone can come up with a feasible plan to implement burying some or all lines, I don't think it's going to happen. Part of "feasible" in this context means what's it going to cost and who's going to pay, as well as how it is going to happen. Merely saying it'll be more efficient to do in some areas does not mean it's going to happen, or even that it will be beneficial or efficient overall.

BTW, I used to live in a Durham neighborhood (Horton Hills) where all the overhead wiring was required to be buried. This was when Hurricane Fran came through. My power was out for about 5 days, which seemed pretty average for the un-random subset of people I talked to. Perhaps it would have been out for 10 days had it not been buried, or maybe not. I don't know. But my experience at the time was that it just didn't seem to matter.

BTW, I was only rhetorically suggesting that you personally do it. Sorry. But I'm not going to do it, because I think it's a waste of my time. Maybe that makes me bad, or at least stupid. Or maybe not.

Kevin Davis

Hi all -- thanks for the, er, *spirited* discussion. To address a couple of the questions here:

1) To Joe's point as to whether the pruning is really 8 years or more frequent -- I think the thought is that 'some' pruning is going on every year, but that there are different circuits (routes), each of which is hit just once per eight years. Phil Roy from Duke Energy alluded to this at the TPNA meeting, noting that the "circuit" that included Markham/Urban had come around for its work.

2) Regarding the costs of burying utilities underground: I've seen the 5-10x number come up before, and to be honest, I'm willing to start with it because it seems to come up the most. On the one hand, my own hometown of Winter Park, Fla. is just undergoing a process to bury aboveground power lines to help in future hurricanes and to improve aesthetics. Boldly, they did so by buying out Progress Energy (the old Fla. Power) in the city and making utility service public. OTOH, Winter Park is a town so rich and exclusionary these days that most of its residents would lock their car doors and get nervous driving through friggin' *Cary*. Which does say something about the cost of doing such a thing. Personally, I'm still much more intrigued at the idea of just moving the power lines to rear-of-lot.

3) Fiber optics: Joe, I assumed Chris' comment wasn't about the mess of dark fiber in the ground generally, but about telco's claims that they'd install last-mile fiber (like Verizon's vaunted FiOS service) to houses, which has been vaporware, er, vaporwire in most places to date.

4) Barry: point well taken on where city funds could go. I don't want to see city $$ spent on burying TP or W-H power lines before we solve those core problems, either. Though Michael's response got me thinking -- maybe if I could just tear up the asphalt on Duke/Gregson and make it a dirt road, we'd get less through traffic. Hmmm...


Kevin: My statement on trimming frequency is just what I've observed in Duke park, and may well be wrong.

If I mis-interpreted Chris's comments about industry pressure on government, I apologize.

TP traffic -- I used to live on the 900 block of Gregson, so I know what it's like. The city might have the money to tear up Duke/Gregson if they hadn't already spent it in TP on narrowing Trinity, putting speed bumps on Trinity and Green, setting up traffic impediments on the block of Markham between Duke/Gregson, additional calming on Watts St. (where I also used to live), and various other Trinity Park traffic calming measures. If I sound bitter -- well, I am. :) But that's because I feel like some of the traffic calming in TP *increased* traffic on another street I used to live on (Glendale). So Duke Park got some of its own traffic calming measures, some of which I also thought were stupid (like stop signs on Glendale at Knox) and some of which wouldn't have been necessary to start with had, IMO, TP not gotten so much traffic calming applied to begin with. But I'm not a traffic engineer either, so what do I know? Maybe that I'm even further off-topic here, as well as being inflammatory? Or maybe I'm just a overeducated low-life unemployed non-property-owning troublemaker? Sometimes I'm really not sure. :)

Linda Shaw

(First, a disclaimer - I've never posted before, so I apologize in advance for doing something wrong - I've posted this under two stories as I really hope someone can offer an update, and even tho this thread may have gone in a slightly different direction.)

Are there any updates on the tree-pruning story? We are fighting for reasonable pruning on our trees, just outside of the city limits, so today I spoke to Paul Van Kay, the Duke Energy "forester" who is in charge of the tree trimming in this area. He told me that Duke Energy is continuing to cut in Durham "without compromise". He insists that our trees must be cut 15 feet from power lines (altho they've never cut that much before) which would cut them all the way back to the trunk on one side (and due to the way the trees have grown, would leave relatively little growth on the other side). We have pleaded with them to trim the trees reasonably as they have in the past, but according to Duke Energy rep, our only option is to pay to move the power lines onto our neighbor's property, assuming we can get them to sign the right of way. Estimated cost (which is all they'll give us at moment) to do that is in the thousands of dollars. We've consulted an arborist, who says the trees in question only grow 6-12 inches per year, so a 15 ft cutback is 15-20 years of growth! Of course, Van Kay is challenging our arborist's statement, despite corroboration on many websites. We've also volunteered to pay for reasonable trimming ourselves, even if we had to do it more often, and again, we've been told it must be 15 feet.
Does anyone know if the city has made any progress w/Duke Energy? I have left messages for Chris Boyer, but she's out of office.


Just posted some low-res images I've taken of affected trees

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