Dear Neighbors:

I thought it would be helpful to share with you the experience I had Monday with the National Grid (electric) tree trimming project.  It is evident that communication among the parties involved has been poor, at best and if I sit on what I have learned I would be guilty of the same.

Tom and I observed a crew working on the tree in front of 100 Federal St. early Monday morning and concluded that they were taking it down for some reason that we could not determine.  When they suddenly appeared before our front door to set up their sign indicating that tree work was being done, we inquired as to what was going on.  Looking down at 100 Federal we saw this (We couldn’t open the photo but it shows a long view of topped off trees!)

They were not taking the tree down (although at this juncture, why NOT) but were trimming it away from the live wires, the uppermost ones that run from the cross pieces on all the poles.  As Perry has mentioned, the specs on this trimming are 6′ away from the wires in all directions.

Needless to say, we became very concerned and objected to further activity.  Being the tree hugger of this couple, I was given the reins to carry on this campaign.  I took on first the poor guy who had been on the job only 3 weeks, then his supervisor.  At this point I would like to stress that they were not only polite, cooperative, and apologetic, but they had the sense of humor to put up with my soap boxing from the bottom step of our front entrance.

They patiently took the time to explain the procedures to me and begged me not to shoot the messengers (references to my possibly being “the woman with the axe” were made and I assured them I would leave it in the house–for the time being).  They also made it clear that they had been instructed that no resident had the right to stop  what they were doing.  Hmmmmmmm.  Further education included the following:

National Grid (NG) specifications call for 10′ clearance above and below, and 6′ clearance to either side of all “hot” wires; however, the City of Salem has negotiated a clearance of 6′ in all directions in an effort to protect the integrity of its historic districts.  That’s all well and good but the interpretation of how that clearance is created is what renders the horrific results of this activity.  The trimmers do not measure 6′ out from the wires and cut there.  They look for the branch that comes within that 6′ range and then follow it to it’s source which may be 12′ down to the main trunk of the tree.  By the time they have done this, there is little left to the tree.  Some believe that this is the only way to trim a tree, some disagree, and I don’t know who is right.

It was explained to me that it’s “the tree” or “electricity”, “electricity” or “the tree”.  What to do?  They were quick to bring up how unhappy I would be this winter if we suddenly found ourselves without electricity.  (Do I feel the sting of a $16 million fine here?)  I completely understand the need for safety, but being a believer in a happy medium, I questioned the need to butcher the trees so severely.  Do aesthetics not come into play at all in this process?  Ahhhhhhh, well………..

The bottom line: aesthetics cost money.  This process costs a lot and “they” don’t want to have to do it more than every 5 years.  Who is “they”?  NG says it’s the City, which is not exactly what the City says.  Then there is the deferring to a higher authority excuse:  we’re just doing our job and don’t want to be called back here to re-do it when our auditor comes around to inspect the job we did.  If we don’t do it right, we don’t get paid and we don’t want to jeopardize a million dollar contract.  Ok, said I, give me the name of whom to call.

First I called NG.  Then I called the Mayor’s office.  Messages were left and return calls promised.  In half an hour, I called both again.  By now neighbors were taking notice and joined in.  Interestingly, with every call, different instructions were given on who ELSE to call.  By the time we were done, we were calling half a dozen departments logging in our objections to this activity in our neighborhood.  But the trimming was ongoing and our biggest fear was that by the time we got action it was likely going to be too late.

In the meantime, even though they told me that they were only doing Federal St., they decided to service the Bradford pear tree on the Beckford side of our house.  I was told by the supervisor that they had been given permission to “go easy” on Bradford pears (why, I can’t tell you) so all they would be doing is “topping it off” which in this case was going to leave a tree twice as wide as it was tall.  There ensued a significant amount of discussion between the supervisor and me beginning with “….now, why can’t you?” and ending in “we’ll get up there and see……”  As I maintained a vigil over them, I very obviously took pictures with my cell phone until they were done.  You may come down and notice that it was not topped off, but very moderately altered to clear the wire by about 2′.  Lesson learned:  be there, be obvious, and take pictures.

In a short while callers were being told that officials from everywhere had been dispatched to the scene.  Suddenly I was in a street conference with Ron Malionek, the city tree/cemetery superintendent, and NG representatives.  My objections and requests were heard.  I was informed that the tree at 100 Federal St. was likely now going to come down and be replaced by NG.  A lot of arm waving and pointing went on during discussions with the entire crew and the Burns’s tree escaped being flat-topped, as I was told it would be, but instead “donut-ed”.  Not my preference, but it WAS a happy medium.

Not long after that I received a call from the Mayor’s office and was informed that everyone was now aware of what was going on in the McIntire District and that the two trees that were butchered (I somehow missed the other one) were actually diseased and would be coming down and replaced.  I thought, if this IS the case, wouldn’t it have been easier to tell me this in the first 5 minutes?

My discussion with Ron Malionek revealed  that he was working satisfactorily with a gentleman at NG about the methods of trimming, that they had negotiated a less aggressive trimming spec, and were prepared to trim more often so that the cutting could be less drastic.  My comment:  someone had better tell the cutters because they believe they aren’t coming back for 5 years, so they have to make this one count.

Ron seemed very informed and very sympathetic with my concerns.  I have had him to our house before on a previous utility company attack on that Bradford pear, so this is not my first meeting with him.  I kept apologizing.  He reminded me that as residents, we are completely within our rights to be concerned and question what is going on.  By now my concern had moved on to the obvious lack of clear communications among the entities involved.  I had a long list of conflicting pieces of information from just a morning of delving into this project.  How much more policing is necessary to stay on top of the situation?  This makes me nervous.

The fact is that these trees should never have been planted under the wires but they were and now we have to deal with it.  Of course, the answer is easy…….bury the wires!  That will have to be a completely different campaign.

Later in the day, I got a call from the supervisor of maintenance at NG (I apologize that I have forgotten his name).  He was unaware of any diseased trees but informed me that the tree in front of 100 Federal would be taken down and replaced by NG.   That’s nice.  How long do we have to wait until it reaches the wires to be butchered again?  Is anyone going to consider planting it a bit further down the belt where it won’t be in danger?  Who is in charge of this decision?  And isn’t it interesting that a diseased tree on city property is going to be replaced by NG?  That sounds awfully magnanimous!  Who is feeding what to whom?

In the process of this engagement with the city, the utility company, arborists, workers, and receptionists, one thing was painfully evident.  Few had the same opinions, the same set of  procedures, the same information.  There were many opinions about who was in charge.  There were conflicting opinions as to whether  trees respond to trimming positively or negatively.  There were many opinions about why the tree at 100 Federal ended up as it did and about how these trees are supposed to be trimmed, including the distance from the wires and whether you take the whole branch or just what was necessary.  I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the results in the loss of a major part of a tree, this lack of            and its resultant uncertainty makes me very uncomfortable.

I am committed to pursuing better communication between the city and these companies, but I encourage you to be vigilant when it comes to observing trees near your property being trimmed.  Your mere presence can be the difference between ending up with a tree that you are happy to have in front of your home and one that makes you cry.  Think of the poor condo owner who is trying to sell the condo at 100 Federal and the perceived value of that property now with that hacked-up tree sitting in front of it.  This could be your house or even worse, much of our street.

I don’t know what, if any, answer there is to this problem besides burying the wires, but I do know that you can make a difference in maintaining the integrity of our neighborhood–a beautiful, historic neighborhood–if you speak up.  I myself, along with a number of cooperative neighbors up and down the street (and you know who you are) were heard on Monday.  Officials showed up, engaged in conversations, trimming proceeded with a bit less aggression, and I discovered that my fight for better communications between the City and the utility companies had just begun.  My tree is still intact, but don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that they were just placating me and will come back next week, hoping I won’t be home, to finish off the job!

I was just copied by Pam McKee, listing agent for the condo at 100 Federal, an email from Ron Malionek referring to that tree as a “casualty” and that it will be replaced by NG.  No mention of disease.  While I am pleased that this will happen, I am very sad that the years it took that tree to reach that size have been wasted by an unsupervised crew who were “just doing their jobs”.  It wasn’t their tree, the one they had come to cherish as a part of their streetscape.  There was no consideration about what it was going to end up looking like, just the knowledge that they had a job to do.  I find this attitude unconscionable, and certainly correctible.

It goes without saying that to assign an overseer of tree trimming to accompany these crews is not possible. The Ron Malioneks of the world can not be everywhere all the time.  It just seems to me that more respect should be paid to the residents of this community who can not speak for themselves.  If you feel the same, please take the time to let the Mayor’s office know that we want a revision to a system that endangers the appearance of our neighborhood in the form of better training, communication, and execution.

Thank you to all who joined me on Monday by making calls and being heard.
Susan Weldon