They came. They heard. They didn't change a thing. Representatives from Dominion Virginia Power met on Nov. 30 with residents who live and play along the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail, to discuss the power company's plan to trim trees that it says threaten its power lines.
About 50 people came to the meeting, which became contentious at times. Residents repeatedly said that they wanted a larger role in determining which trees should be removed. "We're not against the flow of electricity," said Jack Nelson, whose property abuts the trail. "There has got to be a balance between the concerns of the community and what [Dominion has] got to do to clear the lines."
Some trees, however, threaten the lines and must go, said Kathy McDaniel, who is in charge of tree trimming along the trail for Dominion. "There are certain trees out here that we cannot debate," she said.
After more than an hour of discussing the proposed removal and trimming of trees along the 37-mile stretch of trail in Fairfax County, Dominion officials said that they learned a lot from talking with the residents, but their policy and plans did not shift at all.
As a result, one of the residents, Rolf Lehming, produced a letter to the president of Dominion that formally appeals the decision to trim the trees along the trail.
Residents asked that the trimming be stopped until the appeal is resolved. "Can we get an assurance that there will be no further cutting?" asked Nelson.
No such assurance was given. "We're going to continue cutting where we have rights to cut," said Charles Hardy, manager of transmission lines for Dominion Virginia Power.
THE CONTROVERSY heated up several weeks ago when crews from Dominion marked a group of trees along the trail. Pink ribbons were tied to the trunks — one ribbon if the crew thought the tree should be removed, two if it should be trimmed. Many of the marked trees are on private property.
That was a mistake, said Hardy. He explained that Dominion cannot and has no plans to go onto private property. "We don't come onto any private property to cut without an easement or permission," he said.
However, the utility is permitted to cut branches that hang into its easement. The company has an easement along the entire length of the trail.
Even if the trees that Dominion has a right to remove are taken, said residents, substantial damage will be done to the trail. The trees help trail users by providing shade as well as offering a habitat for wildlife, Nelson said. "If the trees that have been identified are eliminated, this part of the trail will have no refuge," Nelson said.
"It's going to be like walking in a parking lot," said Helen Webb of Vienna.
PART OF the issue stems from a change in Dominion Virginia Power's tree-trimming policy. "We are not going to continue to top trees," McDaniel said.
“Topping” is the practice of trimming the tops of the trees or large branches that threaten to either grow up into the power lines or to fall onto them.
Residents questioned the change. "For 27 years, they have cut the trees," said Jack Nelson, whose property abuts the trail.
In the history of the trail, only twice have trees touched a power line, said Paul McCray, manager of the trail for the Northern Virginia Park Authority. The incidents occurred once near Broad Street in Vienna and the other time near Hunter Mill Road. In the case of the tree near Hunter Mill Road, it was a tree that had never been trimmed, he said.
McCray cited a policy of trimming the trees on the side that faces the power lines. As a result, the trees are heavier on the opposite side. "In every other case, they've fallen away from the lines," McCray said.
However, past events don't necessarily matter. "Because there hasn't been an outage yet doesn't mean that there won't be," said Mike Brucato, team leader for transmission line forestry for Dominion.
McDaniel said that now, where such trees exist, they will be removed. "We are not going to repeatedly cut a tree," she said.
She later clarified the statement to mean that Dominion is not going to trim a tree under a power line.
"If it's under a power line, we've got to make it safe," said Hardy.
McDaniel explained that species such as tulip poplars, red maples and pines pose the greatest threat. She said that they will be replaced with species such as service berries, witch hazel and dogwoods, which do not grow tall enough to be a threat and will therefore not need to be trimmed.
"It's about doing right-of-way maintenance," Hardy said. "It's getting the right tree in the right spot."
Dominion, however, will replace only what it considers to be "substantial" trees, which McDaniel defined as having a trunk of 8-10 inches in diameter.
Residents questioned whether Dominion's plans might not be more about cost-cutting than tree-cutting. If the utility company has to trim trees less often, it will save Dominion money, said residents. "You just want to come out and take it down so you just don't have to come out," said Anna Marie Mulvihill of Vienna. "You don't want to spend the money to maintain the lines."
During the meeting, Dominion did not respond to the charge, but in an interview afterward, Hardy denied it. "It's not about the money," he said.