First was the sound. The persistent angry buzz of gas-powered machines broke the summer morning stillness. Next was the visual shock. A row of backyard trees gone, exposing the siding of the new home in the development beyond.
Neighbors felt a mix of emotions. There was the surprise. There was confusion. There was a feeling of helplessness. And there was anger.
What was happening was a clearing of trees in the backyards of a row of homes. A set of power lines runs through there, and Consumers Energy is engaged in maintaining the lines on their easement to prevent power outages from tree limbs falling during storms.
They all understand the right and responsibility of the power company to maintain the poles and wires and do what they can to maintain consistent power. In fact, power companies have a federal mandate to do this. But local neighbors are disturbed by how it is being done, by what they perceive to be excessive clearing of trees and not enough respect for their own rights and concerns as property owners.
There primary complaint is that Consumers did not follow its own protocol of letting residents know about the planned trimming and allowing them to discuss specifics. They feel some trees were not trimmed but clear cut, leaving only stumps. They also feel that some trees were not tall enough to be a threat to the power lines, and others were not anywhere near underneath the power lines.
One neighbor’s underground sprinkling was damaged. He did receive $200 after complaining, but says that does not cover the full cost. Add to that the loss of aesthetic view, privacy, and personal investment in landscaping, and you have a set of angry neighbors.
I contacted a friend who works in public relations for Consumers, and he referred me to the company’s forestry communications director. He told me that this is an unusual case, because a neighbor in the new development behind my neighbor wanted to remove trees, do their own landscaping and put a fence around the property.
They contacted Consumers about tree removal in the easement, and the Company contracted with a crew to remove trees on that part of the easement only. That particular section is clear cut because of the neighbor’s particular request, but other portions of the easement should not be cut so severely, I was told. Also, the remainder of cutting in this particular section of power line is not scheduled til November.
I was also informed that the normal protocol is to send a postcard to residents informing them of plans to trim trees. After that, an employee paints blue Xs on trees and goes door to door to talk to residents, or leaves a card with a phone number if residents are not home.
The forestry communications director told me that Consumers will meet with residents on a case by case basis to discuss questions and concerns to balance property owners’ interests and maintaining the power lines.
Consumers does remove — versus trim — about half of the trees they address. This is determined based on the species of tree and its potential to grow too near power lines, the health of the tree, and the physical relationship to power lines. All of Consumers’ foresters are certified arborists capable of making these assessments.
The representative of Consumers also encouraged me to share the Right Place Right Tree concept, a program of the Arbor Day Foundation that helps homeowners select species of trees to plant that will not grow to the height of power lines. More can be found at arborday.org/trees/righttreeandplace/
In spite of assurances from Consumers, neighbors are still concerned. One had an arborist on their property and was assured that since they have a professional tree company maintain their trees that they would not be trimmed. But the trees have been marked, and this neighbor believes the company lied to them. They have moved because of it.
This set of neighbors is especially sensitive because several years ago the Spring Lake Township Planning Commission made assurances to residents that the new development behind them would not come too close to their property lines. But at a subsequent meeting, when the developer was present but neighbors were not, plans changed. More trees were cut to make way for new homes than they had expected.
One neighbor is working to set up a meeting between Consumers representatives and a group of residents. They feel they may have more strength of voice and gain more respect as a group than they have had as individuals. There concerns are reasonable — to get Consumers to be reasonable about which trees are affected, and whether they can be trimmed as opposed to clear cut.
Time will tell if Consumers actually considers the interests of their customers. As a public utility, they are a monopoly allowed by law. But they are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission.
Other residents in the Tri-Cities who have similar issues with Consumers Energy may want to file a complaint with the MPSC, which can be done online at michigan.gov/mpsc.
A collection of Tim Penning’s columns is available in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman in Grand Haven.
— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist