Scheduled trimming of the remaining two trees on Live Oak Drive by Duke Energy and Pennsylvania-headquartered contractor Asplundh Tree Expert Co. was temporarily halted the morning of March 18 by a peaceful protest of more than a dozen local residents.
Crews tried to finish maintenance on Live Oak Drive around 7:30 a.m., but left after residents refused to disband two hours later. JoEtta Cobb, 117 Live Oak Drive resident, held her seat within one tree’s branches to prevent crews from working.
“We are protesting the way the trees have been trimmed, that they are mutilating the trees, that they don’t have to be cut back the way Duke insists on doing it. They have abused our trust. They have lied to us about how they are going to handle this,” Cobb said. “I’m not going to leave until we make sure we have the opportunity to do it correctly.”
Crews began trimming the limbs of live oaks estimated to range in age from 75 to 100 years old on the southern portion of the Live Oak Drive median March 17, near its intersection with Lindy Lane, where residents said the work successfully cleared limbs away from power lines while maintaining a good deal of the aesthetic value of the trees. But around 3 p.m., when crews approached the last stand of trees in the northern portion of the median, residents said they watched the approach become less balanced. Residents later refered to the tree-trimming work as the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.
Live Oak Drive resident Colin Eagles’ voice cracked as he examined the de-limbed trees in the median in front of his house the afternoon of March 17. Like other residents who live nearby, Eagles said he felt deceived.
“I feel like what they’ve done out here is to an extent necessary, to an extent totally unnecessary. I don’t like it. I don’t like the way we were treated by Duke. I feel like we were patronized, and when we weren’t looking, they took advantage of us,” Eagles said.
Eagles said he and his wife built their home at 102 Live Oak Drive to take advantage of the view the trees provided. With part of the low-hanging live oak canopy cut away, Eagles wondered if the value of his house and his neighbors’ houses will drop.
“My concern as a property owner is that this significantly reduces the value of properties on Live Oak Drive. If you live on Wrightsville Beach and you can’t afford waterfront, this is the nicest view in town,” Eagles said.
To ensure safe and reliable service, Duke Energy spokesperson Meghan Musgrave said the utility employs a directional pruning method when maintaining limbs around power lines, which protects the trees’ health while directing future growth away from lines. Individual trees may be trimmed differently based on the species and how close it is to the power line, Musgrave said. Some trees on Live Oak Drive are fuller and taller and require heavier cuts to both protect lines and the trees’ health, she added.
Crews left March 17 shortly after residents began complaining about the work, and when they returned at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, residents huddled around the last two trees in the median and refused to allow work to continue.
Town manager Tim Owens, flanked by Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House and Capt. P. Burdette, soon served as a liaison between the tree-trimming crew and residents, trying to find middle ground. Owens tried to explain that trees in question were more aggressively trimmed because of the size and spread of their canopy, but residents refused to trust the utility’s plan and requested the opportunity to hire an independent arborist to clear the remaining limbs to Duke’s specifications.
Around 8:45 a.m., Owens told the crowd it had to move the protest to the streets to allow crews to start working by 9:15 a.m., or he suggested they could be forcibly removed. The residents stood their ground.
“Citizens have a right to protest, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to use our freedom of expression, guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution, to stay out here and protest. And these people can go somewhere else, and if they want to come in here and you guys are going to haul us off, then go ahead and get your wagon,” Eagles said.
After another set of negotiations between Owens and Duke employees on-site, the crews agreed to leave for the day.
A conversation is underway between senior Duke officials and town representatives to find an agreement all parties find suitable.