Council Hearing Set for June 12
Trees and Utility Bill Aims to Balance Service Reliability with Homeowner Rights and Natural Resource Protection
By Elizabeth Zinar
A typical example of Pepco tree "trimming" in Silver Spring
Unpredictable power outages have plagued homes and businesses in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for several years. As the supplier of electricity to about 788,000 customers in Washington, DC and in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) has come under fire over frequent and lengthy outages. Spurred by regulators, by public discontent, and by a $1 million fine from the Maryland Public Service Commission in December 2011, Pepco begun to systematically address its reliability issues by developing a five-year Reliability Improvement Plan.
But since the introduction of Pepco's Reliability Improvement Plan in 2010, concern has grown in suburban Maryland that Pepco's new efforts to improve service have come at the expense of the natural landscape and tree cover, and ultimately local biodiversity. This has been particularly true in Montgomery County, where a majority of Pepco's vegetation management and tree clearing has taken place since the company has begun its efforts to improve services. According to Dale Tibbitts, chief of staff to Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, Pepco has cleared about 1,500 trees in Montgomery county, primarily in the Down County area. There have been corresponding complaints from county residents that Pepco has cut down or drastically pruned trees in their yards without their prior knowledge or consent.
Dale Tibbitts of Councilmember Elrich's office
Tibbitts says that the bill, which Elrich introduced last month with Council President Roger Berliner, is "[a response to] the way Pepco has been cutting down trees in Montgomery County." Bill 16-12: Trees-Utility Vegetation Management was introduced to the County Council on April 13 and is scheduled for a public hearing on June 12. Among the bill's main goals are to bring Montgomery County and its residents into closer communication with Pepco as the company implements its reliability improvement efforts. Specifically, the bill aims to make the rights of property owners more explicit and to require Pepco to make the vegetation management activities it conducts within the county more explicit.
Councilmember Marc Elrich
Berliner and Elrich outline four components of the bill developed to meet these goals. The first component requires a formal "Consumer Bill of Rights" which requires Pepco to obtain the official consent of a property owner before it trims or cuts down a tree to maintain power lines. A version of a consumer bill of rights currently does exist whereby property owners have the authority to refuse to allow Pepco to remove or trim a tree on their property. However, the current policy contains a door hanger which considers a property owner's non-response to a request by Pepco to remove or trim a tree to be consent. Bill 16-12 would replace this door hanger with "a new bill of rights which requires a homeowner to fully grant permission to Pepco to work on a tree," according to Councilmember Elrich and Tibbitts.
Over the top..post-Pepco trimming
Two components of the bill would give Montgomery County ultimate authority to allow or refuse Pepco to work on a tree over the decision of a property owner in specific circumstances. In the instance that a property owner does not provide formal consent to work on a tree, the Chief of Tree Maintenance may grant permission to Pepco to trim or remove if the Chief assesses the tree to pose an "imminent hazard" to the power system. Alternately, if the tree is located within the county's historic district or along one of the county's Rural and Rustic routes within the public right of way, it is considered county property. The county therefore would be allowed to protect a tree from being taken down by Pepco if it does not pose an imminent hazard, even if a property owner grants permission to Pepco to work on it. Finally, for all work that is performed within the County, the bill would require Pepco to also submit to the county the vegetation management plan that it currently only submits to the Maryland Public Service Commission.
"The reason we did this is because the tree canopy in Montgomery County is extremely important to our quality of life," said Tibbitts. "We understand the necessity of having reliable public power, but we don't want excessive tree removal."
Photo of Pepco destruction as taken by Montgomery Countryside Alliance
So far, the introduction of Bill 16-12 has received a mixed response in the county. Some observers claim, as was asserted in an editorial in a May 9 issue of the Montgomery County Gazette, that the measure "would add unnecessary layers of regulation to Pepco's tree-trimming efforts in Montgomery County, thereby slowing that effort." However, others point out that indigenous trees in Montgomery County face vulnerabilities from existing Pepco company policies and as such, they maintain that the bill may not provide adequate protection of local tree species.
"We are supportive of the aim of the legislation, but it doesn't go quite far enough," said Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Naturalist Society. Milmoe is among a number of local environmentalists and residents who have taken Pepco crews to task as they have cut down trees along rustic roads and county streets. In particular, Milmoe cites concerns about Pepco's list of targeted tree and plant species that are reported to cause power outages. She says that the Audubon Society would like to see "more attention paid to the species on the list and what the parameters would be for removing them." Fifty-seven of the 77 species found on the list provided by Pepco are found in Montgomery County and they would not be given oversight if they are located in the public right of way. "[Pepco] is removing targeted species that are healthy and that is where we differ from their approach," Milmoe says.
In a response to the May 9th editorial in the Gazette, Councilmember Berliner submitted an explanation published in the May 16th Gazette newspapers. He states that the proposed legislation aims to strike a balance between the concerns for the reliability of the power system, for the accountability of the county's utilities provider, and for the preservation of the tree canopy.
"We impose no further regulatory burden," writes Berliner. "But here is what the bill does do -- we ensure that Pepco is held locally accountable for trimming in accordance with the standards the Commission has established. Montgomery County can and should play a constructive role in protecting its resources."
How to Sign Up To Testify at the Council Hearing on June 12 at 7:30 p.m.:
Call 240-777-7803 and indicate you wish to testify. Hearings are held in the County Council Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville.
County Council Overturns the Executive's Veto
Over Bill Regarding Sale and Leasing of Public Land
The Montgomery County Council voted on May 15th to override County Executive Ike Leggett's veto of Council-approved Bill 11-12. The 6-3 votes were cast by the same Council members who voted for and against the bill before it went to the Executive for signature. Council members Ervin, Floreen and Rice were the dissenting three votes.
Bill 11-12 requires Council oversight and approval and encourages early collaboration when a tract of public land at market values of $100,000 are under consideration for sale or lease by the Executive. The bill also requires the Executive to receive Council approval before selling public land at less than market value and gives the Council a 30-day comment period to set parameters for land use negotiation.
"This bill ensures that no one person will have the authority to sell or lease assets that belong to the public and are worth millions of dollars," said At Large Council Member George Leventhal, chief sponsor of the bill. "It allows for public input and ensures checks and balances for what happens with publicly owned land."
The veto override marks the first time since 2003 that the County Council has overruled the Executive and the first time in Leggett's tenure that he has vetoed a bill. Find the press release here and the Patch story here.