Tree-trimming plans trigger local concern

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Crews hired by Duke Energy will come to Wrightsville Beach this month to trim trees growing near power lines, prompting calls for caution from town officials and residents.

The work, planned for Causeway Drive and Waynick Boulevard and the surrounding neighborhoods south of the streets from Marina Street to Jack Parker Boulevard, is needed to prevent outages and safety problems during storms, said Duke Energy spokesperson Meghan Musgrave. Residents fear the work might alter the character of neighborhoods where the tree canopy that serves as a defining feature often stretches alongside power lines.

Live Oak Drive resident Walter Laughlin, one of the citizens who shared concerns with town officials after a Duke representative presented the tree-trimming plan during a Feb. 12 Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen meeting, said he is worried about the trees on his street after seeing the results of Duke’s vegetation management efforts in other areas around New Hanover County.

“To us, it’s an unknown. You’ve got the big power company and then you’ve got those of us that live on the street, and we’ve seen what they’ve done off the island. We just don’t want that to happen on our street,” Laughlin said.

Live Oak Drive is a special part of Wrightsville Beach, Laughlin said, and the trees are important to the community’s charm.

“When I come home from work every day and I enter Live Oak from Causeway Drive, I feel like I’m going into Sherwood Forest. It’s this wonderful feeling of being surrounded by nature and living harmoniously with it. Those of us that live on that street just revere those trees,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin said he hopes the trees can be handled with respect for their aesthetic and cultural value while also fulfilling the utility’s responsibility to safely provide power to customers.

“Ideally, they would skillfully trim the trees in such a way that there is not a risk posed to the general population with ice events and hurricane events, with branches knocking down power lines. That’s a safety concern for everybody. But there is a way to do that while protecting the crown of the tree,” Laughlin said.

A recent experience with utility-performed tree trimming also informed Wrightsville Beach Alderman Hank Miller’s concerns about the upcoming work. Within the last six months, Miller said a stand of evergreen trees near a Racine Drive shopping center owned by his family were over-trimmed. Duke notified the property manager before performing the work, and Miller acknowledged the utility’s right to maintain safe conditions around power lines, but he said the final product upset nearby business owners and tenants.

“They just went and hacked down the middle of it, and it looks pretty bad,” Miller said. “… It looks like somebody went in and cut half of your Christmas tree off.”

Musgrave said the utility strives to strike a balance between the aesthetics of existing trees and the company’s goal of providing safe and reliable service for customers during vegetation management operations.

“Trees are part of the natural beauty of the Carolinas, but they are also the leading cause of outages for utilities in the southeast, so we really have to proactively manage trees and other vegetation to help ensure safe and reliable service for our customers,” Musgrave said. “This is routine work that we’re doing to enhance reliability and safety for customers in this area.”

Residents with questions or concerns are encouraged to contact Duke, Musgrave said.

“Since every property is different and there are different trees on each customer’s property, it’s good for customers to reach out to us about any concerns and questions they have before we do this work,” she said.

Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens said he has worked with Duke since the utility notified him of planned maintenance work early in 2015, requesting specific details and sharing local concerns with Duke officials. The town does not ultimately have authority over the utility’s plans, Owens noted, even though a town ordinance requires a tree protection plan and tree protection permit for tree maintenance projects.

“Long story short, it would appear that the [North Carolina] Utilities Commission is the one that regulates those types of activities. The town, although I’ve expressed our concerns and I’ve forwarded emails from the public regarding our concerns, probably has limited authority to enforce anything, as far as the tree ordinance goes,” Owens said.

Even if the town has limited authority to influence what happens, Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair said board members and town staff will be present for maintenance work.

“All we do can is believe what we’ve been told and keep an eyeball on it. That’s as good as we can do. We’re not going out there to try to tell them how to do their job. If a hard decision has to be made, I just want to make sure the hard decisions are made for the right reason, not because it’s the easiest decision,” Blair said.

Blair said his concerns are focused on Harbor Island.

“When they get off Harbor Island and go on the main part of the beach, there are some places on the other side of the bridge that need a little attention, but Harbor Island’s got the old oak trees and a lot of growth, and the power lines and the oak trees there seem to have a tendency to be closer than on other parts of the beach,” Blair said.

Live Oak residents will also be present while the trees are trimmed, Laughlin said.

Door hangers with specific information about upcoming tree maintenance will be delivered to residents the week of March 9, Musgrave said. The work will begin three to seven days later and take three or four weeks to complete.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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