For the past year, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P), the electric utility, has been doing an awful lot of tree cutting in Wilton and across the state, all under the auspices of preventing tree-related power outages, especially like those caused during the major devastating storms of the last couple of years.

Just take a look at the images GOOD Morning Wilton captured just last week of a stretch along Pimpewaug Rd., or drive along the Merritt Parkway (and sit in traffic caused by tree trimming crews) and you’ll see the kind of de-foresting going on. CL&P has a program they call “Expanded Tree Work,” to cut back trees, which they say will reduce outages 30-40 percent. Their stated parameters for a “clearance zone is 8 feet to the side, 10 feet below and 15 feet above the conductors. The clearance zone for Enhanced Tree Trimming is 8 feet from either side of the lines.”

Ask Patricia Sesto, Wilton’s director of environmental affairs, about all the trimming and you get an understandably nuanced answer.

“It is difficult to swallow the way things look right now. Keep in mind the longer range–tree limbs do grow back, so if things look kind of scalped right now, the trees will put out new shoots on the sides and it will soften. The way it looks today is not the way it will look five years from today. They do always grow back,” she says, and pauses, adding:

“The flip side that counters that is the New Haven Garden Club raised [the question] that CL&P does not have statistical evidence as to where this 8-foot [line] comes from. The trees that did all the damage in the storms–were they healthy trees? dead trees? what was the characteristic in this pattern that led them to this decision of eight feet?”

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Tree logs left after CL&P-hired crews trimmed trees on Pimpewaug Rd.

Sesto is definitely a fan and protector of trees and hates to see them indiscriminately cut down; but she also understands the need to sometimes cut back some vegetation.

“CL&P took a lot of heat for the outages. I can see where they’re pressured to do something. I was out for 25 days between the three storms. There are plenty of people who say, ‘Cut every tree within 60 feet of the lines. I don’t want to go through that again.’ But, there’s got to be a responsible take on it. There are a lot of trees that fell. But there are way more trees that didn’t fall.”

One thing Sesto does want Wilton residents to know is that they have the right and responsibility to tell tree trimming crews from CL&P whether or not they give permission for trees on private property that may be within that 8-foot clearance zone. That’s per a decision made in late June of this year by Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) which gives town tree wardens and residents the responsibility to protect trees.

“I want Wilton residents to know what their responsibilities are and what their opportunities are to guide what’s happening in town. A lot of people have been upset, to the extent that trees have been cut on our roadways.” She said that the town has received calls from residents who are unhappy with all the tree cutting.

According to legislation passed in the spring, the utilities have to inform residents in writing of any intent to cut trees, and there’s a requirement for explicit written permission for trimming trees entirely on private property. There are other legislated protections, including a dedicated email address and mediating body to make it simple for residents to object to trimming of trees abutting their property, a provision for stump grinding, and clarification that residents will not be financially responsible for trees that may fall onto power lines. 

When the PURA decision came out on June 26, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment (CFE) issued a press release expressing disappointment, saying “PURA passes the buck.” CFE has called CL&P’s and UI’s approach “too rigid and aggressive,” saying the utilities should instead focus on the hazardous trees most likely to fall. They said the PURA decision doesn’t limit CL&P’s and UI’s enough to protect healthy trees that don’t threaten utility infrastructure and puts the onus instead on citizens and towns.

“We’re pleased with some refinements in PURA’s final decision. We are disappointed, however, that the agency still has not pushed the utilities to come up with tree removal standards based on actual risk factors such as tree health, stability, and strength,” said Zack Bestor, legal fellow at CFE. “Basing tree removal primarily on distance is an arbitrary approach that will result in the loss of healthy trees that pose little risk to our electricity infrastructure. Ultimately, the decision passes the buck to local tree wardens and residents who will have to fight individually to protect their trees.”

(See below, at the end of the article for the pros and cons outlined by CFE.)

Walking a careful line, Sesto advises residents to consider the utility trimming request carefully.

“When it comes to your private property, do think [before] just saying ‘no’ when there might be a valid reason to pursue the tree trimming,” she says.

However, that’s not to say that the decision to cut is always right. And it’s complicated because many trees earmarked for cutting are located on state roads–and the state authority, including PURA, will often be more aggressive in their intent to cut in such locations.

“PURA overrides our towns–on town right of ways and think of how many roads in Wilton are actually state roads. People don’t think of Sharp Hill Rd. or Wolfpit Rd. as state highways, but they are,” Sesto explained. “We don’t actually have any say on those trees. Which isn’t to say that we won’t say something; we will. The town will definitely speak up.”

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The tree centermost in the picture, with the green ribbon tied around it, is slated for removal by the utilities–unless a town appeal can stop it.
The tree centermost in the picture, with the green ribbon tied around it, is slated for removal by the utilities–unless a town appeal can stop it.

Case in point, Sesto mentioned a large, 36-inch maple tree (pictured at left), next door to Old Town Hall and opposite the Congregational Church on Ridgefield Rd.–which, of course, is Rt. 33, a state road.

“It’s big, it’s old, and it’s slated for removal. Something that size is a couple hundred years old. First Selectman Bill Brennan called me and said, ‘This would be a bummer for us to lose this tree. Coordinate an effort with [Wilton’s tree warden] Paul Young to see what they think of the tree.’ We’ll make our recommendations to CL&P.”

According to Sesto, the tree in question is “kind of hollow” but the leaf canopy is still healthy; the town tree wardens recommend that there be some tree trimming to help avoid the wires but not remove the tree.  “We’ll see how that goes,” she added.

Of course the owner of the private property where the tree stands has every right to weigh in on the tree too, according to Sesto–just like every property owner can speak up regarding the tree trimming on their own property that CL&P wants to do. That’s all part of the PURA decision that Sesto is hoping residents will learn more about.

“People have a sense that they don’t have a say, but they do.” says Sesto.

How fast does the town need to act? “It’s something you need to be prompt with. I’ve seen where they’ve tagged trees, and then it’s a couple weeks before they come back and actually do the work.”

What to do if your trees are ‘tagged’ for removal or cutting

According to the CL&P website, “When trees on or near your property have grown too close to power lines, CL&P will notify you by letter, door hanger or in person of our plan to prune or remove trees. If you object to the proposed tree work, you must write a letter of objection to the appropriate parties within 10 business days of being notified. If you live on a town road, please write to CL&P and your local tree warden. If you live on a state road, please write to CL&P and the state Department of Transportation. Following a local or state decision, both you and CL&P have a right to appeal the decision to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority within 10 days. For more details, please call us at 800-286-2000.”

Paul Young
Wilton Tree Warden
Wilton Town Hall
238 Danbury Road
Wilton, CT 06897

CL&P Vegetation Management
P.O. Box 270
Hartford, CT 06141-0270

CT Department of Transportation,
Commissioner’s Office
2800 Berlin Turnpike
Newington, CT 06131-7546

According to the CFE press release, the June PURA decision included what they called “improvements”:

  • The decision requires tree assessment at least ten days in advance of any cutting, rather than at the time of pruning. This is necessary for notices to towns and property owners to have any effect.
  • Explicit written permission from the town tree warden will be required before trimming on town land. Additionally, property owners whose property abuts the right of way where a tree is slated to be removed can object within ten days of receiving notice.
  • The “eight-foot zone standard” becomes a suggestion rather than a requirement in the final decision, leaving room for healthy trees to remain in the zone.

According to the release, CFE “remains concerned” about other aspects, including:

  • Responsibility for objecting to tree cutting remains in the hands of tree wardens and residents, rather than requiring the utilities to design standards that protect trees and are based on removal criteria other than distance.
  • PURA recommends that the State Vegetation Management Task Force consider a way to charge private property owners if they object to tree trimming and the tree subsequently falls and damages the lines, which is illegal and contrary to the legislation passed at the end of last session.
  • Unfortunately, the final decision says that the entire tree will be removed if pruning the tree creates an unhealthy or dangerous condition, an over-destructive and unnecessary policy. Instead, the pruning should be done in such a way as to not create the hazard in the first place. [In some cases, the pruning of a healthy tree that extends within eight feet of the wires would itself create a dangerous condition where one did not exist previously. In these cases, the pruning should be adjusted accordingly to not create the hazard.]
  • The notice to property owners will be sent via first class, rather than certified mail.
  • Specific protections for trees compatible with the utility infrastructure and that do not pose a threat are not included in the decision.

“What is clear in the decision is that town tree wardens and private property owners will have a vital role to play in protecting against over-cutting by the utilities,” CFE’s Bestor said. “We encourage residents to be on the lookout for notices, and to contact the utility and their tree warden right away if they have a tree near the power lines that they do not want pruned or removed.”

One reply on “Wilton’s Environmental Affairs Chief Speaks Out About CL&P Tree Cutting”

  1. As long as these people are not the first ones complaining that their power is out. I don’t see CT having a tree scarcity. This is just NIMBY. I say clear even more out. Have your trees in your back yard, not the front yard.

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