<bt>They don't plant utility poles like they used to. This is what residents along Beulah Road discovered at a public hearing held at Monday night's Town Council work session to discuss plans for cutting down trees along the road to make way for the power lines that will be moved when the road is reconstructed.
A public hearing had already been held on the subject last May, in which an agreement had been worked out between residents, Dominion Power and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), said Mayor Jane Seeman at the opening of the session. Wondering at the recent public clamor over the tree-cutting, she asked VDOT representative John Lynch, "Has something on the plans changed?"
What had changed were standards for the construction of utility lines, although probably not since May. While most of the utility poles in town are planted along the "utility strip" between the sidewalk and the road, and the surrounding trees are often trimmed within a few feet or less of the lines, VDOT has planned to place the poles along Beulah seven and a half feet from the planned roadside, and Dominion has planned to clear the trees from a swath extending 15 feet on either side of the lines. Many of the trees marked to be cut are in residents' yards.
Ed Belte of the Northeast Vienna Citizens Association (NEVCA) had prepared a slide show which included about a dozen pictures of power lines in Vienna, all of which were placed on the roadside. "I drove around town and started looking around for utility poles that are not right at the edge of the curb. They're kind of hard to find," he said.
Lynch said that, for reasons of safety, seven and a half feet from the roadside has become VDOT's standard placement for fixed objects. "We can go down to about a six-foot offset as a minimum," he said. "If you have a highly congested area, even that isn't feasible, so we'll allow, with an exception, to go as little as a foot and a half from the face of the curb, but that really has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis."
As for surprise about the clear-cutting of Dominion's easement along the lines, Mike Wilder of VDOT said, "the utility easements were maybe not a highlight of the process of the road design, but utility easements have been on the plan since the public hearing."
"What's wrong with the aerial trimming that's being done by VDOT or the utility companies now?" asked Seeman.
Wilder said keeping trees far from the lines reduces outages from falling branches and, more importantly, protects the safety of workers who have to repair the poles in bad weather and may not have adequate space to climb them or access them in a bucket truck.
Charlene Whitfield of Dominion Power said the 15-foot clearance on either side of the lines is in accordance with the National Electric Safety Code. She said the company could have their forester come out and look at the trees after the poles had been set, and it might be determined that a few could stay.
"I think there's a little bit of maintenance cost that enters into this too," said Councilmember Maud Robinson. "The larger the clear-cut, the less year-in, year-out maintenance you have, I believe."
Whitfield said all trees in the area are trimmed on a three-year cycle. "We don't go back and say, 'Well, we can get five years on this cycle if we trim it a little bit more,'' she said.
It was unclear, though, what Dominion would trim if the surrounding trees had all been cut down.
Belte had also taken it upon himself to redraw VDOT's plans for the poles, placing them on the utility strip.
The council decided that not all of the tree-cutting seemed necessary.
"I'm convinced," said Seeman. "I think we need to go back to the drawing board to get those poles moved out."
Asked to respond to Belte's presentation, Dic Burke of VDOT pointed out, "There's been considerable work done on these plans by both town and VDOT staff. Right now, the current project expenditure is standing in the neighborhood of $1.5 million." He said re-planning would be a large undertaking and would result in missing the expected completion date of December 2006.
"I think sometimes money is not the sole criteria," said Councilmember George Lovelace, adding that it is important to preserve the town's ambience. "I would like to suggest that our town staff work with your staff and consider a concept like what was presented by Mr. Belte, to begin to develop plans that would keep the utility poles as close to the utility strip — or in the utility strip — as possible."
Councilmember Mike Polychrones asked Burke who would be stuck with the $1.5 million bill if the town walked away from the project. He was told that the town would have to pay it.
Several residents spoke in favor of re-evaluating the plan.
Paul Cumiskey of Druid Hill Road said he wanted to see a common-sense approach taken. "Trees on my property — and I'm sure on many others — we're talking maybe about a foot or two, and trees are no longer in this clear zone." As far as planting the poles before having a forester evaluate the surrounding trees, he asked, "If the poles are already marked — where they're going to be — you mean you can't stand there and look up and say, 'What would the impact of the tree be?'"
Former Councilmember Richard Dingman of Westview Court said reconstructing Beulah Road had been discussed when he sat on the council over 32 years ago. "I don't want to see us get into a point where we have another 10 years of evaluations and new plans and all those things," he said. "That being said, I still want to do all we can to protect people's property."
Town manager John Schoeberlein will be in communication with VDOT about altering the current plans.