Cutting into neighbors' fall views

Felled trees in Baltimore Co. ensure safety, BGE asserts

November 15, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Brightly colored leaves aren't the only things falling along Cromwell Bridge Road this autumn. Some of the trees that produce them are coming down as well.

In an effort to protect wires -- and prevent lawsuits -- BGE is removing the trees from a 66-foot swath of land surrounding power lines along the length of the road. It is part of a project to remove trees near the utility's 500 miles of transmission wires, which carry higher voltages than most power lines.

But residents are furious that trees are being chopped down along the winding road, one of the gateways from the Beltway to the forested areas of northern Baltimore County. They worry that without the trees, soil will erode and damage nearby Minebank Run, which recently underwent a $4 million restoration. And they point out that the road was designated a Maryland Scenic Byway this year -- in part because of the tree-lined hills flanking it.

"It's not going to be so scenic any more," said Andrea Soukup, a nearby resident.

Workers began removing the trees about three weeks ago and probably will continue until the end of the year, BGE officials said. Large patches of land along the road are dotted with fresh-cut stumps. Felled trees await removal.

State and county officials say that they have no authority over BGE's tree-removal procedures.

Charles B. Adams, head of the state's scenic byways program, wrote a letter asking BGE to remove a minimum number of trees and preserve the "peaceful elegance" of the road. The utility company responded by saying that it could not alter its policies for the stretch of road, which was named part of the "Horses and Hounds" byway in January.

Residents often object to tree-removal projects, but they are necessary to prevent blackouts and road hazards and allow workers to access wires, BGE officials said.

"We're the ones who are on the hook legally to provide service and protect motorists from falling trees," said William T. Rees Jr., director of BGE's forestry unit.

Although in the past BGE workers have pruned trees, current industry best practices call for tall-growing trees in the right of way surrounding wires to be cleared, Rees said. To prevent regrowth, workers probably will apply "effective and environmentally safe" herbicides, he said. BGE began removing trees near transmission lines about six years ago and likely will complete the statewide project next summer, he said.

"We will never let the trees get this tall again," he said.

Trees growing outside the right of way on BGE-owned land that could fall on wires or roadways are also being cleared as part of the project, Rees said. The utility has the right to prune or remove trees on privately owned land that could threaten wires, he said.

BGE's policy for removing trees is more stringent than what the federal government calls for, Rees said. Federal standards do not require that trees surrounding wires of 115,000 voltage -- like those on Cromwell Bridge Road -- be removed. The utility is removing trees in anticipation of stricter national standards, Rees said.

But Soukup and other neighbors, who met with Rees and other BGE officials this week, said that they would rather risk a falling tree than lose the beautiful views that characterize their neighborhood.

They worry about the health of Minebank Run, a tributary of the Gunpowder River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. Minebank Run flows alongside the road and through Cromwell Valley Park. A six-year project to reshape the streambed and plant thousands of trees and shrubs along its banks was completed in 2005.

Acres of nearby land were recently cleared for development, and eroding soil from that land fell in muddy heaps on the road last winter, neighbors and county officials said.

David A.C. Carroll, head of the county's Environmental Protection and Resource Management Department, said he did not believe that removing the trees would have a negative ecological effect because thousands of nearby acres remain forested. He added that his office did not have authority over BGE's tree removal process.

But J. Edward Gates, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that the cumulative effect of removing trees for nearby development, as well as along power lines, could exacerbate erosion. Herbicides could also harm aquatic life, he said.

Rees said that BGE will take necessary steps to minimize damage to the environment, adding that the "shrub and scrub" ecosystem that will be created will be home to many birds and small animals.

The utility is considering a partnership with state and local agencies to plant and maintain other types of vegetation nearby, he said.

But local residents, who have asked county Councilman T. Bryan McIntire and state Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier to assist them, said that they won't stop fighting for the trees.

"You get off the Beltway and see all those trees and it's wonderful," said Soukup, an artist. "We can't let them destroy that."

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