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 firstname.lastname@example.org.