Except for the four or five years that he spent in college and playing minor-league baseball, Billy Emerson has lived on Adahi Road just off the Washington and Old Dominion Trail in Vienna his entire life. When the old W&OD rail line was converted into a trail in 1978, the dense wall of trees that had grown up in his back yard and along the rail line provided a buffer that gave him some privacy from the trail users. Then last week workers from Dominion Virginia Power cut down half a dozen trees, exposing his yard to the trail, a decision that has angered him and several of his neighbors.
"All the time that I've lived there, nothing like this has ever happened," Emerson said after a meeting between local residents and Dominion executives Monday. "That changes a way of life for me to the point where I'm seriously considering selling a home my family has lived in since 1963."
IN THE WINTER of 2003, Dominion Power executives decided to cut down trees along the W&OD trail to reduce the number of outages caused by tree limbs falling on electrical wires. John Smatlak, a Dominion official, said the company had experienced about a dozen outages in three years from fallen trees. Dominion Power holds an easement along the trail where it runs transmission lines.
The plan to cut down trees gained urgency after a massive blackout brought states from New York to Ohio to a halt on Aug. 14, 2003. A report produced after the blackout found that the root cause of the incident was a tree limb falling on a power line and urged power companies to prevent trees from growing close to electric wires.
"It's not acceptable, it's not fair to take a risk of having another Northeast blackout, having 50 million people in the dark, having 1.5 million people without water and having hospitals close," said Smatlak at Monday's meeting, citing statistics from last year's power outage.
Dominion has already cut trees in Falls Church, Arlington and parts of Vienna this year and plans to take more down later this summer. The decision to cut is a marked departure from past practices where Dominion settled for trimming trees that were growing too close to power lines once every three years.
"In the past, we used to trim sparingly, and what's different today is we're no longer going to trim sparingly. Now we clear," said Smatlak.
People who live near the trail said they understand the need to keep the power lines humming but question the need to clear-cut a shady stretch of the region's most popular park.
"Sometimes, they've got to cut those trees down," said Emerson. "But around the houses, they ought to make some consideration."
Emerson has two daughters under 5, and he said that he is worried his house is now exposed to the thousands of people who pass along the trail day and night.
SEVERAL PEOPLE at Monday's meeting said they would like to see Dominion officials show them where they plan to cut trees and alert the neighbors. Gautam Chandra, who lives near one of the W&OD's distribution lines, said he came to the meeting because he wanted to know whether any of the trees near his property would be affected.
"We should have a coordinated plan of what's going on," said Chandra, who works for a utility company. "I don't know why they can't coordinate that."
In a county that has seen wave after wave of development over the past 50 years, the mature trees and wildlife along the trail have become favorites for people all over the area. Paul McCray, park manager of the W&OD trail, said the area Dominion is considering clear-cutting features a low, shady canopy above the trail.
"It's a really nice little area," he said. "We put a bench in there, a memorial bench to take advantage [of the shade]."
Because it controls the easement, Dominion could legally clear-cut all the trees that are within 100 feet of its transmission lines, something the company does in less densely populated areas. But Smatlak said he was willing to take a risk and preserve some trees in response to the neighbors' concerns.
"I anticipate that the compromise cutting that we plan to do should be sufficient, but I don't want to be locked into that," he said. "But if I continue to have tree-related outages, then I'm going to come back, and I'm going to tell [Dominion forester] Kathy [McDaniel] I want it clear-cut."