Residents of Guilford and Madison are up in arms as the energy company Eversource has started clearing trees from the 150-foot wide right of way running along transmission lines between Branford and Old Saybrook.
The project is expected to run through the end of the year, said Eversource Manager of Vegetation Management in Connecticut Sean Redding.
The clearing is one of two projects in the area, said Redding, the other focuses on the replacement of poles with sturdier poles and replacing wires with more compact covered wire along roadside distribution lines.
“Both are stronger and help improve reliability in the area,” Redding said.
With the distribution lines project, he said, under state law, property owners have the right to refuse work that alters vegetation on their property.
The same is true regarding trees that aren’t on private property, he said, and if there is a tree the public doesn’t want removed that sits on public property they can appeal to the town’s tree warden to not have the tree removed, as it is the tree warden’s ultimate decision.
But, property owners do not have legal recourse to protect vegetation within the right of way of transmission lines, which are the high voltage wires that deliver power from generation plants out to substations.
Eversource has had these easements for decades, Redding said, and in the past they have conducted regular maintenance around the transmission lines.
“That’s regulated at the federal level,” Redding said. “Somebody owns the property and at some point the company purchased an easement to build, maintain the lines and as well do the vegetation management.”
Eversource is now increasing the maintained right of way and removing incompatible trees up to 100 feet from the wires.
Rebecca Martins, who lives on Stepstone Hill Road in Guilford, said that removing incompatible trees is essentially removing everything.
“When you push Eversource for answers, they’ll say we’re not cutting everything, just incompatible species,” she said. “Anything that can grow to 15-feet. In a wooded area, that’s everything. It’s going to be full of invasive species.
“They are cutting everything in the right of way,” she said. “When we get down to specifics they’re cutting everything. I can’t get them to save anything. They’re saying they’re not cutting everything. Why does a 30-foot tree 100 feet away affect the power lines? It doesn’t. The explanation I got is, the lines are covered by federal law. In certain conditions the line can sag and blow out. They’re clearing for those conditions. If the lines are on a hill, the trees are a bit taller. I understand their reasoning, but it feels drastic. They’re cutting 150-foot wide all the way through the town. They’re cutting down half of my yard. I feel defeated. I can’t stop it.”
Eversource has previously maintained vegetation within its easement, but the decision to clear cut represents a significant change in policy.
“Like many things over time, the conditions and situation evolve,” Redding said. “Reliance on electricity is increasing over time. Reliable power is key for homeowners, businesses and the economy. A few years back, we were evaluating our performance for reliability. With the increase of storms and the intensity of those storms, we were seeing more disturbances and outages on our transmission lines. The primary cause of that were trees within the easements falling into or close to the lines to cause an outage on our transmission lines. Because of the voltages, the tree doesn’t even have to hit the line, it can come close and cause an outage or a disturbance. That hinders our overall restoration. These lines serve tens of thousands of customers. It’s critical these lines stay on. This is a situation we wanted to reduce the risk on.”
He said that with the increased age of the trees in the state and with disease and invasive species, trees are failing and need to be removed from the easements.
The width of the easement through most of the Guilford area, Redding said, is 150 feet, but can vary depending on the agreement at the time the easement was established. And transmission lines don’t necessarily fall directly in the middle of the easement.
According to maps provided by Bill and Susan Wivell of Madison, who have been living on their property within the easement on White Birch Road for about 30 years, the transmission lines are off center with 50 feet of easement north of the lines and 100 feet south.
The Wivell’s property has a long driveway leading up to their home running through heavy foliage. Much of the foliage that leads from the street to their house will be removed by Eversource.
“We have a really cute 8-foot pine that’s in our driveway right now,” Susan Wivell said. “It’s never going to be tall enough for many years.”
In the past, she said, Eversource would come in for a couple days every few years for trimming.
This changed last summer, she said, when Eversource came in and cleared the 50-foot north side of the easement.
“We were shocked by the scope of it,” Susan Wivell said. “We’ve been here for many decades.”
When she spoke to a representative of Eversource in May of this year, she said he told her that was only the beginning.
She said that was the first time she had heard about the project to clear out the additional 100 feet of easement.
Redding said that Eversource had started reaching out to residents in December as part of a multistage effort to notify property owners about the clearing.
“We start with a letter,” he said. “The letters were sent out in December and followed up with direct outreach, trying to make direct contact to inform them of upcoming work. That’s knocking on doors, leaving door hangers, making calls. We include further discussions to explain what’s happening.”
There are residents, though, like the Wivells who didn’t hear about the work to clear out the additional 100 feet until recently.
Martins said she never received the letter in December.
Though a contractor did come to the house in February, she said, Eversource’s concept of making contact with property owners is an overstatement.
“They said I’d met with the arborist and outreach team in February and June,” she said, “but I have no idea who the outreach team is. Saying they ‘met’ with us seems to indicate in person. That didn’t occur.”
The most common complaints among property owners is that the clearing of the vegetation will devalue their property and have a negative impact on the environment.
“The scope of this is beyond reasonable,” said Susan Wivell.
“We understand the legal side of it,” Bill Wivell said. “Our thing is Eversource has always said they have a good neighbor policy, called their Best Management Practices guide. Their own BMP states the importance of maintaining a screen of trees for residential value to lessen the impact. They have a right to cut. The question is why? Do you do it simply because you have the right to? What is the need?”
“There are some great native New England canopy healthy trees that will never be a threat,” Susan Wivell said, “and will be removed.”
Leslie Sude, who lives on Windsor Court in Madison, said the clear cutting will only add to the detrimental effects on the environment.
“It’s going to be exacerbated by the loss of shade, loss of canopy cover, loss of soil, oxygen purification, soil erosion,” Sude said. “This is just a small percentage of a larger swath across New England.”
Considering that only 50 feet on one side of the transmission lines are being cleared, Susan Wivell questioned the necessity of having to clear all 100 feet on the other side.
“That tells me by default if it was so critical to have the full 100 feet, they would be negotiating with homeowners, pleading with them to say they need an extra 50 feet,” she said. “They’re not doing that at all. By default they are saying 50 feet is okay on one side.”
She said they’d be fine if Eversource cleared only 50 feet, but clear cutting 100 doesn’t make sense.
“A 10-foot tree, even a 50-foot tree will never fall 100 feet,” she said.
Kenny Weisman, who also lives on White Birch Road, owns a maple tree in his front yard about 40 to 50 feet tall that sits right on the line of the easement, said Eversource has told him they’re removing the tree.
“I’ll have an arborist come in to trim it,” he said.
“It would have to be lifted up by a tornado and thrown into the lines to come anywhere near it,” said Bill Wivell.
Clearing has already begun in Guilford with the 150-foot cutting of land running up the hill visible from the intersection of West Lake Avenue and Old New England Road.
Nancy Craig Kalin who lives on Wilderwood Drive, can walk into the cleared part of the easement from her backyard.
“If you look at it, there’s literally no way these trees will fall and hit those wires,” she said of many of the trees that haven’t been cleared yet.
She said she and her husband Tom were willing to create an even 75-foot split on either side of the transmission wires, giving up 25 feet on the north end so they could maintain some of the trees they would lose on the south end, but were rejected.
“They aren’t concerned about the lines,” she said, pointing out trees on the north end that she was offering to let them cut down that were within range of falling onto the lines. “I’m all for protecting the power grid. I respect that.”
Another concern for property owners is what will grow back once everything is torn down.
Redding said there is no compensation for the property owners from Eversource for loss of value to the homes, but is offering mitigation planting on a case by case basis based on the impact.
“We’ll come to an agreement about replanting,” he said, “depending on where it is.”
He said that directly below the wires, they won’t plant anything that will grow over 15 feet, and in a to-be-determined range, 25 feet further out. “If we plant outside the easement, it can be taller, typical mature trees,” he said. “If it’s determined that planting is appropriate, we’ll have a landscape designer and work with the property owners and work with them based on what the property owner is interested in having accomplished. Ultimately the property owner has to agree with what’s being planted. We obtain the plant material, work with a contractor to install it.”
It will be up to the property owner to maintain whatever is planted and Eversource won’t plant anything if the property owners are unable to care for it.
After Eversource finished the 50-foot clearing last year, the company never planted new trees or shrubs, said Susan Wivell.
“Originally they said they’d replant into fall, now it’s spring, summer or next fall,” she said. “They haven’t done any maintenance.”
She said she had an arborist come over to inspect the vegetation that has grown and it’s all invasive right now.”
Guilford First Selectman Matthew Hoey said that aside from the responsibilities of the local tree warden with the distribution lines, the town has no control over what Eversource can and can not do regarding the easement.
“These are protocols that have been established,” he said.