For months, NStar fought with tree lovers in the leafy suburbs west of Boston over the utility company’s new policy of cutting down trees around high-voltage transmission lines, which carry power to tens of thousands of customers. When Hurricane Sandy barreled across the state Monday, NStar’s efforts appeared to pay off: Not a single transmission line fell.
But was the benefit of the tree clearing worth the cost to the suburban skyline?
Residents of the swath of area communities where the utility did its cutting aren’t so sure.
“My trees were never going to hit their lines unless somebody picked them up, got on a crane,” said Sudbury resident Ellen Sard. This summer, crews working for NStar chopped down 22 trees from an easement that the utility holds in her backyard. “It will always be a sore subject for some of us.”
Nearly 400,000 NStar customers lost power at some point over the course of the massive storm, according to the utility. At its height Monday night, more than 150,000 were without electricity. At noon on Friday, the utility said service was back to normal.
The storm took down numerous lower-voltage distribution wires across the state, but had transmission lines fallen, said a company spokesman, those outages could have been far worse. A broken distribution line might leave a neighborhood in the dark, but with a fallen transmission line, entire towns might lose power.
“We didn’t have any issues in transmission,” said Craig Hallstrom, NStar’s vice president of operations, at a news-media conference Tuesday. “Clearly, if you cut the trees back, you don’t have the risk of them falling in.”
But in some area communities, residents are still simmering over the utility’s aggressive approach, and maintain that a less drastic policy would have worked just as well.
“If you cut everything down, well, of course you take away the risk,” said Wayland resident Robert Noa, who had about 40 trees removed from his property by NStar, which holds an easement. “If they had continued to engage in the policy they had in place for the last half-century, which is topping trees and clearing them back to the point where they won’t be a threat — it’s just as effective.”
This summer, the utility cleared trees along transmission lines in Framingham, Natick, Sherborn, Sudbury and Wayland, and then began on a 17-mile stretch of high-voltage lines running between Southborough and West Roxbury.
Falling trees are the main cause of power failures, according to NStar officials, and it was the wooded communities along the Interstate 95 belt that suffered the most outages last week. On Tuesday afternoon, said Hallstrom, the utility still had about 50,000 customers in the state without power, and 30,000 of them were along the highway corridor.
In recent years, the utility has also stepped up its pruning efforts to protect the local distribution wires along neighborhood streets, a practice that the utility expects to continue.
“We’ve been ramping up our tree trimming for the past several years; we’ll continue to look at it,” said Hallstrom. “Again, it’s the number-one cause of outages, and that’s the mission, to keep the lights on, so we’re going to do what we can to do that.”
But even that effort has run into opposition.
This summer, Brookline saw a clash between NStar and residents upset over the utility’s request to remove 22 trees that had grown up and through lines in the Chestnut Hill section. A flood of written objections halted the effort. And while 49 other trees around town fell during Sandy, the contested trees remain standing, with no major limb loss.
“It sort of proves the point that we were making at Town Hall,” said Rob Utzschneider, who lives on Woodland Road and was among the residents who wrote to town officials in the effort to save the trees. “I always say to my wife and my kids, ‘Stop worrying about problems that don’t exist.’ We don’t have a problem with trees falling on power lines on Woodland Road.”
The utility does not usually cut down trees near distribution lines, but instead prunes adjacent branches, officials said. In the wake of the repeat outages during last fall’s two major storms, though, NStar began pruning more aggressively, increasing the minimum buffer zone around its lines.
Brookline had given NStar the OK to remove another tree, which had not yet been taken out when Sandy hit. It split during the storm, said Erin Gallentine, the town Parks and Open Space Division’s director.
“We do think that health, safety, and pruning is critical, but we don’t think that widespread removal or overaggressive pruning is always in the best interest of the community and not always necessary,” said Gallentine. “We work to find that balance.”
The utility’s ramped-up efforts are in part a response to pressure from the public. NStar drew the ire of towns and cities across the state for its slow response to the widespread power outages — caused largely by falling trees — last fall, and Attorney General Martha Coakley this summer urged the state Department of Public Utilities to levy a fine of $ 9.7 million.
But as NStar has worked to curb outages, the utility has found itself at odds with residents who are fiercely protective of their trees.
The tree-cutting policy along its transmission lines has been especially contentious. Under NStar’s policy, launched in 2010, no trees with the potential to grow higher than 3 feet are allowed to remain under high-voltage wires; no trees with the potential to grow higher than 15 feet are allowed to remain in a border zone. The policy does not apply to trees near local distribution wires.
From the utility’s point of view, its policy is working. But residents who look out their windows at dirt where trees used to grow see it differently.
“Sudbury’s position was clear, we’re going to continue it,” Town Manager Maureen Valente said of local objections to NStar’s policy. “It was way over the top in terms of what was taken down, how it was taken down.”
As of Wednesday morning, 10 percent of NStar’s customers in Sudbury were still without power, according to the utility’s website. Valente said the town was hit hard by the hurricane. The fact that the high-voltage transmission lines in town made it through unscathed was little comfort. The problem, said Valente, was never the trees around the transmission wires — it was the trees along neighborhood streets.
“Here we had a major hurricane come through and the problem was elsewhere,” she said.
In Wayland, too, the still-standing transmission lines had done nothing to mollify residents still upset over the trees that the utility cut down.
“I don’t think that it has an impact at all,” said Town Administrator Frederic E. Turkington Jr. Residents remain convinced that NStar “could have trimmed less aggressively, and still could have maintained the clearance,” he said.
In Needham, local officials pointed to the 4 miles of transmission wires that run through the community and said Sandy proved their case. The town has blocked NStar from cutting any trees around the wires, and while fallen distribution wires caused outages, Needham’s tree-lined transmission wires escaped Sandy’s wrath.
“It reinforces that there are ways to deal with those precautions that don’t require clear-cutting,” said Jerry Wasserman, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. NStar has objected to describing its policy as clear-cutting, noting that it does leave some small trees. “I think there’s a feeling that pruning the way that they used to, and keeping the trees from getting to a height that interferes with the transmission lines, should still be a solution.”
NStar’s response to Sandy is being closely watched. And even those upset over its tree-cutting efforts acknowledge the balance between reliable service and a scenic landscape can be difficult to strike.
“If you ask some citizens who love tree canopies, they’d say, ‘You cut too much.’ If you ask on a day when people are clamoring to get their power back, they’d say, ‘Cut more,’ ” said Wayland official Turkington. “It depends on when you ask.”
Still, some residents say that the utility must work harder to find that balance.
“In the scope of life, it’s really only trees,” said Sard. “I miss mine, that’s all.”
Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com.