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Unkind Cuts

Poet Joyce Kilmer might take an entirely different point of view when comparing a poem to a tree following a ride through Old Town Alexandria — particularly after Dominion Virginia Power's contractor, Asplundh, had done their trimming.

Monday morning Asplundh Tree Service began trimming trees just inside Jones Point Park on South Lee Street extended, to remove branches from power lines and a triple transformer assembly on a pole across from the community gardens. Upon completion those trees resembled the remnants of Hurricane Isabel. And debris littered the immediate area.

Following an inspection by a representative of the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, Kirk Kincannon, department director, said, "We have looked at those cuts and they are definitely not acceptable. And, we intend to increase our supervision over how these crews are cutting."

That was of little comfort to Philip Matyas, 200 block of North Pitt Street, and Don O'Hare, 700 block South Pitt St. Both had suffered damage to mature trees in their neighborhood and, in the latter case, on his property.

On the Jefferson Street side of O'Hare's home stands a mature magnolia tree. A power line goes through the middle of the tree while another line follows the Jefferson Street curb line. Asplundh trimmers chose to cut the limbs from the tree closest to his home but left the limbs that engulf the overhead wires at the curb line.

"That magnolia tree has been there nearly 50 years and has never posed a threat to the power lines. They also showed up when I was a work and did all their cutting when nobody was home," O'Hare said.

"When I came home from work the lawn was littered with debris. They had not done any clean up. I had to do it all," he said.

"And one of the worst things is that I had a professional landscaping company come in this spring to trim that tree as well as other shrubs on the property. Now that investment is lost, as far as the tree is concerned," O'Hare said.

"I called the city arborist the next day and he told me they couldn't do anything. Virginia Power has the right to cut on my property due to an easement over private property," O'Hare said he was told by John Noelle, city arborist.

This was verified by Kincannon. "We have had a series of problems with these tree cuttings crews before, but, unfortunately Dominion Virginia Power is within its rights to maintain free power lines along its right-of-way. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it," Kincannon said.

"They are to follow our standards and that has been the problem. That was evident in the cuts in Jones Point Park this morning," he said.

MATYAS' CASE did not occur on his property but on Queen Street near his home. "I was parking my car two weeks ago and looked up and saw the sky through the trees for the first time. I wondered why and then saw this hole in a very mature tree along one of the best tree lined streets in Old Town," he said.

"I've had property here since 1994 and have never seen this type of tree trimming before. My first thought was, we either have people trimming who don't know what they are doing or Dominion Virginia is cutting back severely in order to not have to do it for longer periods of time," Matyas said.

"I'm a broker with Long and Foster and this disturbed me both professionally and personally. I called the city manager's office and left a message but never got a call back," he said.

"I also called the city arborist. He said he went up and looked at the cut and it looked OK to him. It seems to me there should be a lot more supervision by the city over how these cuts are being made. There seems to be little or no supervision by the city," Matyas said.

"My tax dollars are going to pay for their [city employees] jobs and retirement. If they don't have the same respect for the city as the residents, then maybe I shouldn't be paying all those taxes. We don't require that many services from the city in Old Town. More supervision of a utility company contractor is not too much to ask," he said.

"The Board of Architectural Review is very concerned with preserving the essence of Old Town and other historic areas, yet here comes Virginia Power destroying one of our most precious assets, the natural beauty of our tree lines streets. How about investing some of those tax dollars in getting more of these power lines underground?" Matyas said.

DEFENDING THE ACTIONS of its contractor was Le Ha Anderson, media relations, Dominion Virginia Power. "They [Asplundh] are certified to cut trees to our specifications. We know that many times the cuts are not pretty but they are done to free up the power lines from tree branches so that they will not damage those lines in heavy storms," she said.

When told the complaints were not about the necessity to keep the lines free of tree branches but rather about the apparent lack of concern or professionalism for preserving the aesthetics of the trees, Anderson replied, "We follow the standards of the American National Standards Institute that is endorsed by National Arborists Society. They've established industry-wide standards on how to cut trees in general."

"We also have our own foresters who oversee the work of the contractor," she said. That person for Alexandria is Randy Clark. However, this week he has been on sick leave due to a back injury, according to Anderson.

Substituting for him was George Fornier, a company forester normally assigned to the Springfield area. Following inquires to Anderson about Asplundh's work and expertise, Fornier arrived on the scene to view the cuts made at O'Hare's home.

Standing on the curb with the Asplundh crew supervisor, Juan Bonita, Fornier was asked for his appraisal. "It looks OK to me," he said. Bonita insisted the branches hacked away would "grow back in two or three weeks" even though they were primary limbs of an established, mature magnolia that had been preserved by the professional landscaping firm earlier.

When Fornier was asked if he was an arborist, he said no. "We are designated as foresters. But we are not arborists," he said.

AS FOR THE TREE on Queen Street, Anderson said that the power company had asked Nolle to "look at the cut after we received a formal complaint. He [Noelle] reported back to us that the cut was in line with specifications as far as he was concerned," Anderson said. That differed with Kincannon's assessment of Asplundh's work.

"We use Asplundh throughout our service area as well as other tree-trimming firms. We have more than one contractor for these services," Anderson verified.

"In many cases, in order to ensure a longer life for the tree, cuts must be made in certain ways and this is often not pretty. We would often prefer that the trees be cut down and replaced with ones that don't grow as tall so they would not reach the power lines," she said.

According to Asplundh's regional office in Glen Allen, Va., "They [Virginia Dominion Power] tell us how they want the trees trimmed as far as protecting the power lines and we go by our contract relations with them. We go by their guidelines."

Anderson said, "Every time we trim the trees there are complaints."