JEA arborists caught in a cross-fire – “service vs. esthetics”

Communication, education key for win-win solution

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

Often when nature collides – some would say, interferes – with man’s desires, nature is the loser. Every two and a half years in the Historic District, “power” and personal preference come together for a sparring match.

In one corner of the ring are preservationists and property owners; in another corner, the JEA trouble crews. Right smack in the middle – serving as referees – are the JEA arborists and foresters.

Arborist Early Piety, who cares for the historic Treaty Oak and the Cummer Oak, summed it up. “It has to be a win-win situation; we’ve got to have power and electricity but we have to accommodate the trees with proper cuts according to ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) standards,” he said. “When you wake up at 2 a.m. and get up to get a glass of milk, do you want the light to come on? I know I do. If a bad storm comes through and the trees aren’t trimmed properly we could be out of power for much longer than necessary.”
Rule of law vs. property rights

Property owners get understandably upset when the trees that they have planted, albeit directly under a power line, come under the pruning blade and are left looking like a bonsai creation gone awry.

But how often do property owners take the time and bear the expense to properly cut a tree that may be a hazard to their and their neighbors’ power?
By rule of law the trees between the sidewalk and street are City property and, by extension, owned by JEA, stated Gerri Boyce, media relations coordinator for the JEA. “JEA does not have to have permission from the adjacent property owner to trim. And they [the property owners] do not have the technical right to bring a halt. JEA’s policy is to notify homeowners when we are beginning a trimming cycle in their neighborhood.”

Normally this policy works reasonably well, except when JEA began tree trimming in the 5 Points area earlier in the summer.

Communication (or lack of) is what brought residents, Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP) and JEA together several times over the summer because bid crews preceded the communication piece in the existing process.

“As soon as JEA’s forestry department recognized the lapse in the process we immediately called the crews away from the area,” noted Kim Wheeler, Manager, T & D Preventative Maintenance.

Then followed several meetings over the summer with JEA’s arborists and foresters to review the tree trimming practices and revise some policies to address the tree canopy in the Historic Districts.

“Even when the tree is on the homeowner’s side of the sidewalk and within their property boundaries, we have the rights to ‘do what is reasonable, necessary and customary to maintain the utility service,’” Boyce said. “This is called Proscriptive Rights. If the utility has been there for 25 years, the utility has the rights to maintain the line. The trim cycle [2-1/2 years] defines those parameters.”

According to JEA arborist Joe Anderson, who holds a forestry degree, RAP has a valid mission to uphold the historic aspects of the neighborhood, but “our mission is wider and broader. We have to provide safe, reliable electrical service to our customers, but we need to balance service with the health of the trees and the esthetics,” Anderson said. “When most of the complaints are about the esthetics, we’re reaching our reliability goal.”

Carmen Godwin, RAP executive director, affirmed RAP’s mission: “We are one of two really distinct, unique areas of the [consolidated] City, and we have both national and local ordinances that protect the historic features, including trees and sidewalks. For us it’s very important they [JEA] understand we are a unique area and the tree canopy is very important.”
Coming to agreement?

“Trimming any tree, especially in the Historic District, is always a sticky wicket and there’s never a good answer,” Piety said from
experience. “The JEA is under mandate to clear the wires, so there’s not much of an alternative. Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and even ‘80s there were no rules for trimming and trees were cut indiscriminately; there was such an outcry over those practices that those who cut now do proper cuts, having gone through training.”
While JEA’s tree contractors are currently trained to Tree Line Utility USA practices, moving forward they will receive additional training in Historic District trimming immediately prior to cutting in those areas. A certified arborist, acting as general foreman, and a JEA arborist or forester will remain in the area undergoing cycle cutting.
The JEA will also begin the open wire secondary replacement this fiscal year in conjunction with the cycle trim; open wires will be replaced with single line of bundled cable, which is insulated against possible contact from trees or squirrels.

While Godwin is cautiously optimistic about the proposed changes, she noted “We deal with the issue of the aggressive tree trimming practices every two and a half years and we sit down at the table; this is the first time [in three cycles] I feel we’ve made a lot of progress, but I don’t know if we’re there yet. They are trying to research ways they can minimize the effect on the tree canopies.”

In a progress report to RAP and other concerned residents, Wheeler wrote, “JEA recognizes that trees and urban forests add value to property and enhance the quality of life in a variety of ways. However, utility tree pruning programs are necessary to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of vital services to the community. When trimming trees, our goal, at JEA, is to create the right balance between safety, reliability, tree health, aesthetics, and community concerns. Yes, we agree that preserving the past is important; but we also agree that preserving old ways may not always be the only way to continue forward.”

New ways could include underground utilities. While replacing open wires, also known as aerial bundled cabling (ABC), may result in a smaller pruning radius RAP’s ultimate wish is that the utilities be buried.

“We’d love to see underground and no more tree trimming; the ABCs will reduce the amount of trimming they will have to do,” Godwin said. “We’d like to see a plan in writing for changing out the cables and moving toward underground cables.”

JEA had quite a few more items on its list of improvements that it will be incorporating into the needs of the two and a half year trim cycle. With four degreed foresters and six certified arborists supervising and inspecting tree trimming around the power lines, residents can have some assurance that all sides will be declared winners in this match.

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