In Montco, making peace between trees, power lines

Todd Hilsee stands near his grandmother's house in Upper Pottsgrove Township. He was shocked to learn that a power company had cut down 189 trees on surrounding land.
Todd Hilsee stands near his grandmother's house in Upper Pottsgrove Township. He was shocked to learn that a power company had cut down 189 trees on surrounding land. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 03, 2014

Unbeknownst to Todd Hilsee, the power company's chain saws had just cut down 189 trees on his grandmother's property when he sat down with Upper Pottsgrove Township officials to discuss how to save it from development.

It was a 17-acre haven - she'd called it Fairy House Wilds - where he'd spent many summers.

One of the officials recognized the location. "Snyder Road? Have you seen it lately? It looks like a logging camp."

Hilsee raced over and was sickened by what he saw.

Along a quarter-mile stretch of one of Montgomery County's most scenic byways, contractors for the electric company, FirstEnergy Corp., had taken down scores of mature hickories, oaks, beeches, dogwoods, and redbuds.

Hilsee sued. It was 2010. The sides recently settled for undisclosed terms. But the property was conserved, and Hilsee hopes to now turn part of it into a model for how power lines and trees can coexist.

The struggle over greenery vs. electricity is as old the power grid itself.

But lately, after widespread power outages during Hurricane Sandy and February's ice storm, the battle lines may be hardening.

Trees are a leading cause of outages. "When we do tree-trimming, we do that to protect our wires, our equipment, and our customers," FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner said. "Our job is to keep the lights on."

But all too often, the results aren't pretty. Who hasn't winced at those V-shaped trees with wires running through the center? Plus, society has grown more appreciative - and protective - of trees because they clean the air, beautify communities, and combat climate change.

"It's one of the great challenges of urban forestry to have these things coexist," said Pete Smith, a program manager with the Arbor Day Foundation, which gives annual awards, under its Tree Line USA program, to utilities that conform to best practices.

In general, "the tendency is to get more and more clearance, trim the trees harder and harder. That gives you more protection during storms," said Philip Charleton, executive director of the Utility Arborist Association, a national industry group.

In August 2003, a cascading power outage that affected about 50 million people in the Northeast and cost billions was later blamed, in part, on improper tree trimming. Congress passed legislation that led to new clearance standards for high-power lines.

Then came the outages from Sandy and February's ice storm, when 715,000 Peco customers alone lost power. The last of them didn't get it back until seven days later.

Peco, which already spends $35 million a year on pruning and vegetation removal, had a lot of community meetings afterward, spokeswoman Cathy Engel Menendez said. When it came to tree-trimming, residents fall into two camps.

Cut, say those who lost power for several days.

Wait, say those who didn't.

Todd Hilsee, who lives in Souderton, gets it. "We all want power to do so many things in our daily lives," he said recently as he spread out a map of the 189 stumps left by the tree crew. "And yet we want our natural landscape to be untouched."

In the case of his grandmother's land, which Hilsee and his wife, Barbara, had bought from relatives for $425,000, they'd gone too far, Hilsee thought.

Several ironies gnawed at him.

Snyder Road wasn't an ordinary road. It had been designated by the Montgomery County Planning Commission as "aesthetically unique."

The property itself was a central link, joining several other conserved properties in a community that cared deeply about open space. Since 1999, Upper Pottsgrove had gone from zero to about 300 preserved acres.

If this property could be added, the high school track team could run a five-mile route and cross only four roads.

"This is the heart of it," Township Commissioner Herbert C. Miller Jr. said.

Hilsee had wanted to turn part of the property into an environmental education center. But did that make as much sense after all those trees were cut?

According to a complaint he filed with the state Public Utility Commission, "Today, where the view shed had been flowering trees along the right-of-way, with sight lines into an old growth forest floor covered with periwinkle and dappled sunlight, invasive species block the view and are choking out proper regrowth."

But then he had another idea. What if this was, in the end, not the destruction of a beautiful section of woods, but a teachable moment?

What if they could do everything - start a new nonprofit, build a center, and preserve the land?

He already knew of a student environmental group at Souderton High School - SAVE, or Students Against Violating the Earth - and he respected the longtime environmental education teacher, Ken Hamilton.

Besides Hilsee's suit settling, the township got a $146,100 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the money went toward the $400,000 purchase price for 15.5 acres of the Hilsees' property.

Part of the conservation agreement is that a new group - the SAVE Alliance Foundation, headed by Hamilton - can use the land.

That's important, because it will be right next door.

The Hilsees are donating the remaining 1.6 acres and the grandparents' house, originally a log cabin built about two centuries ago, to the alliance. Last month, the group received approval from the IRS for its nonprofit status.

It has a lot of plans: The house restored, and an education wing added. Trails marked with quick-response codes. Waist-high garden beds so those with physical disabilities can reach them.

A typical day, in Hamilton's view: In the morning, dog walkers stopping by to learn how to build a rain garden. Later, student groups coming for lessons. In the evening, a community program on, say, native plants.

Or maybe a program on the new stretch of forest along Snyder Road.

The alliance plans to remove the overgrowth of invasive species - and any stumps that remain - this summer and, come fall, start putting in the trees.

They'll all be native species. And, with the group borrowing from initiatives many power companies now extol - "the right tree for the right place" - under the power lines, they'll be one other thing: short, such as redbuds, dogwoods, and crab apples.

The site will be, Hilsee said, a model of how the two actually can coexist.


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

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