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Letter asks NStar to be flexible on clear-cutting plan in Needham

Posted by Evan Allen  July 30, 2012 06:50 PM

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State and town officials have sent a letter formally asking NStar to back off its controversial clear-cutting plan for trees around high-voltage transmission lines in Needham.

The letter, sent to the utility's president and dated July 27, acknowledges NStar’s need to keep power lines clear of falling trees, but asks the utility to consider some exceptions.

The utility has agreed to respond to the letter before beginning its work in Needham, according to a spokesman.

The letter was signed by State Representative Denise Garlick, State Senator Richard Ross, State Senator Michael Rush and Needham Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick.

NStar’s clear-cutting has been a deeply controversial issue throughout the suburbs west of Boston, from Sudbury to Wayland to Framingham, where residents have raged against the utility for stripping their neighborhoods of foliage; some of the felled trees grew in people’s yards. NStar holds easements on its rights of way, and the widespread outrage has done nothing to halt the clear-cutting.

The policy was adopted by NStar in 2010 as a way to ensure that falling trees don’t cause power outages along its transmission lines, which carry electricity to tens of thousands of customers. It does not allow trees with the potential to grow taller than 3 feet to remain directly under the transmission lines, and does not allow trees with the potential to grow taller than 15 feet to remain in the border zone. The policy does not affect lower-voltage distribution wires that run along city streets.

In Needham, the targeted area is about 4 miles long and 100 feet wide.

The letter from Needham officials asks NStar to “consider leaving some trees in place that are deemed to be incompatible with the [right of way] but which are not yet at a height that would cause concern.”

Under NStar’s plan, even a 1-foot-tall sapling that, in the future, will top 3 feet under the wires or 15 feet in the buffer zone, has to go. Aspen, Beech, Birch, Hemlock, Oak, Maple and Pine trees generally fall into this category, according to materials presented by NStar at a public meeting and posted to the town’s website.

NStar spokespeople have said that trees are the number one cause of power outages. The utility maintains that the only way to prevent outages is to clear trees around transmission lines.

Last year, two powerful storms – Tropical Storm Irene in August and a snowstorm in October – knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of NStar customers. Many of those outages were caused by falling trees, and the utility is facing the possibility of hefty fines over its handling of the outages.

The Attorney General’s Office last week announced that it is seeking fines of more than $16 million against National Grid over its slow response to the same storms.

An NStar spokesman declined to respond specifically to questions raised in the letter, saying that the utility had only just gotten it.

“We've just received the letter and are still reviewing it,” said Michael Durand, NStar spokesman. “Once we've completed our review we'll respond directly to town officials and state legislators.”

The letter also asks the utility to respond to “special concerns” about tree removal in densely populated neighborhoods in Needham, as well as for the trees surrounding DeFazio Park, the Needham Golf Club, and land under the Trustees of Reservations and wetlands areas.

In addition to requests for leniency, the letter requests that NStar work with neighbors to clearly outline cutting plans and ensure that work crews conform to those plans.

Officials also outline several questions for the utility about how public safety concerns, erosion concerns, and right of way boundary identification concerns will be handled.

A copy of the letter can be found here: nstar letter from reps.tif

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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