Herndon-area resident Steve Pope, a marketing manager who lives in the Hiddenbrook subdivision, had just arrived home early from work to take out his dogs and fix a broken satellite cable on Monday, Sept. 29 when he noticed that something was going on in his backyard.
After walking outside, he saw several tree maintenance crews working with trimmers and chainsaws as they "indiscriminately" sheared the trees that stood on the property line along his and his neighbors’ backyards.
"I was in shock and awe, I mean, good God, I couldn’t believe not only that they were trimming the trees, but the manner in which they were doing it," Pope said. "They were just clear-cutting all up and down the trunk … branches were falling everywhere."
One particular concern, Pope said, were the students playing outside at nearby Dranesville Elementary School.
Hiddenbrook resident Pam Herkert noticed the damage when she returned home from work that afternoon.
"There were just these jagged cuts, the trees were stripped down to everything but the bark," Herkert said. "In some instances you had trees that were nothing more than a 50-foot stump with no branches at all."
THE CUTTING, they soon found out, was done at the orders of the Columbia Gas Company, a division of Merrillville, Ind.-based Nisource Inc., to clear away a canopy that had grown to obscure a stretch of pipeline over the course of more than 30 years. The clearing of the branches, Columbia Gas operations team leader John Jackson said, was needed to increase visibility for periodic aerial surveillance to protect it against any security breaches that could be harmful for residents.
This particular stretch of pipeline, consisting of two, 26-inch diameter transportation lines, runs from the Loudoun and Fairfax County line all the way to Dranesville Road, according to Jackson. Previous to this project, it had been patrolled on foot and by ground vehicle. Under easement rights, the Columbia Gas Company has the authority to clear anything that obscures the view of the pipeline from the ground to the sky from 15 feet from each side of the pipeline, Jackson said.
Upon discovery of this information, residents convinced Columbia Gas to stop with the clearing project until a town hall-style meeting was initiated for them to voice their concerns over what they said was needless and wanton destruction of trees that are rooted on private property.
Shortly after the meeting, which lasted roughly an hour and a half and drew about 25 residents, many speaking passionately against the initiative, maintenance crews resumed and finished the project.
Despite the anger from some residents, Jackson said that the safety that will be provided through the regular surveillance of the pipeline is the primary concern of the Columbia Gas Company. While not required by law to monitor the pipeline through the air, it is Columbia Gas Company policy to maintain strict visual contact with the pipeline.
"Really what it boils down to is a safety issue," Jackson said. "If you get a resident or a developer out there who is careless and doesn’t check for a gas pipeline and they bring a backhoe out there, they can cause some serious damage," like gas leaks or ruptures to the pipeline.
WHILE THERE HAVE fortunately not been any breaches to pipelines operated by the Columbia Gas Company and all areas are marked every several yards with poles designating the presence of a gas line, Jackson said that the ability for aerial surveillance is integral.
"We have [people doing something to potentially damage a pipeline] every day that we take care of," Jackson said. "You’d be really surprised by how many people won’t know what is down there and they’ll just start digging it up."
The surveillance is not just for digging, he noted, but also for things like construction of sheds.
But it’s not the task that bothered some residents as much as it was the way that Columbia Gas Company went about it.
Despite assurances that Columbia Gas Company placed "very recognizable" notices on the doors or mailboxes of every resident backing up to the area that would be cleared, Herkert and Pope said that they had received no official notice.
And the fact that the Columbia Gas Company was attempting to clear away more than 30 years' worth of growth in a few afternoons didn’t help the situation in residents’ eyes either.
"It’s not about their right to do it, it’s about doing it the right way," Pope said. "Most of these trees, they’ve suffered permanent damage … obviously the residents have to have some rights in cases like this."
Pope noted that the Hiddenbrook Homeowner’s Association requires approval of removal of all trees standing more than four inches in height.
WHAT NEEDS to be done now, Pope added, was some type of acknowledgment and restitution from the Columbia Gas Company.
"When we hear them talk about this great community relations role that they say they take, we’re absolutely dumbfounded," he said. The problem could have been easily solved, Pope added, by gradual trimming that would mitigate some of the negative factors associated with an instantaneous and brutal trimming.
Despite the backlash from residents and the attention from several local media outlets, Jackson said that he would have done nothing differently on this particular project if given another chance.
"We’re not going to make everyone happy every time," Jackson said. "But I also think that this time next year that everyone will be a lot more happy when the [cut] trees get their leaves back and look a lot more full than they are now."
But for now, Herkert is upset with the major eyesore left by the cutting and has been left asking why the Columbia Gas Company couldn’t have done more to limit the negative effects of the project.
"This neighborhood, it’s a very wooded area and a lot of us live there because we really love trees, so I think that it was particularly offensive to a number of us," Herkert said. "I understand that they did what they had to do, but I hope that now they’ll do the right thing by following through with the residents."