LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Hundreds of trees are doomed in Lower Macungie Township, Lehigh Co.
Three PPL officials met with more than 40 angry residents Thursday night about the utility's plan to soon cut down trees in the right-of-way of a 69-kilovolt power line that crosses the township.
PPL is doing that to prevent widespread and prolonged power outages like those that occurred after Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 October snowstorm.
"A tree-related outage on this transmission line would affect tens of thousands of people," said PPL spokesman Paul Wirth.
Wirth was apologetic and sympathetic. He acknowledged PPL's policy is not popular. He promised company representatives will meet one-on-one with homeowners to discuss issues on their properties.
But he held firm to PPL's "consistent policy" that the trees have to go.
"I don't see us changing the policy," he told residents. "It's not an easy message to deliver. We understand individual property owners would not like their trees removed. We hear that a lot, believe me.
"But PPL has an obligation to the tens of thousands of other people down the line who would be affected if these trees would cause an outage."
The PPL officials rejected residents' suggestions that the power line be put underground, relocated or put on taller poles so trees would not have to be removed. They also rejected a suggestion that PPL just trim trees every few years and charge residents for their work.
PPL will not pay to replace or transplant trees.
Some residents said their trees are so small that they can't possible threaten power lines for many years to come. Others complained PPL gave them permission to plant trees in years past, but now insists they must be cut down.
Wirth said PPL's policy has become more stringent, in direct response to "continued tree strikes and power outages that are affecting so many people for so long."
"We expect to start doing this work in the next several weeks," said Wirth. "No sooner than about two weeks.
"We already have notified those property owners who will be affected. We've met personally with many of these owners to tell them which trees have to go, which may be able to stay and what they can plant instead of trees, what's compatible to still provide vegetative screening. We'll be happy to schedule such a meeting with anybody else who would like to meet with us before the work begins."
The PPL reps could not say how many homes in the township will be affected, but that hundreds of trees will be cut down, including many that now screen homes and yards from nearby roads.
"That totally sucks!" declared resident Beth Ravier, who then added: "Sorry."
"We've heard worse," said Wirth.
Ravier said what PPL plans to do is totally unacceptable and will make her Sauerkraut Lane neighborhood "look like a war zone. There has to be another solution to this."
Lori Bowser who lives on Sauerkraut Lane predicted she is going to lose 192 trees.
Wirth said it's unfortunate that trees along PPL's Sauerkraut Lane right-of-way were planted in the wrong place.
A man who lives along Princeton Road choked up when he asked if PPL will spare an ornamental cherry tree planted on his property as a memorial to his wife who died at age 43.
Lower Macungie commissioners asked PPL to make a presentation at their Thursday night meeting as a public service, in response to residents' complaints about what PPL plans to do. After township officials asked questions, the PPL reps moved to an adjoining meeting room in the municipal building to take questions from residents for nearly an hour. People who will be losing their trees were angry, but generally civil.
At the start of PPL's presentation, Ron Eichenberg, president of the five commissioners, announced: "This is a non-action item for the township. There is no vote to be taken by this board. This is something Lower Macungie Township has no control over. This board has no jurisdiction and cannot interfere with what PPL has a right do in its easements.
"But personally I would hope there could be a middle ground with PPL. No one up here is happy about having our power out for days. Nor do we want the vegetation totally devastated."
Eichenberg suggested that trees and shrubs should be trimmed rather than removed.
"No incompatible vegetation will be permitted to remain," said Wirth.
PPL has a "consistent policy": trees and other "incompatible" vegetation will be removed from all its power line rights-of-way.
Wirth told residents that PPL's right-of-way property easements give the company the right to remove trees, but it was not enforced in the past.
PPL will cut down and remove trees and grind out their stumps to below ground level Trees with branches that extend into the right-of-way will be trimmed.
Diseased or damaged trees that might fall into the power lines also may be removed.
Referring to homes along Sauerkraut Lane that will lose privacy when all their trees are cut down, Commissioner Ryan Conrad said: "That's going to drastically affect the landscape there."
Added Eichenberg: "Not only the landscape – it's also going to affect property values."
Wirth said trees coming into contact with power lines are a major cause of large power outages, "especially our 69-kilovolt transmission lines like the ones here in Lower Macungie." He told commissioners no state or federal mandate requires that PPL must remove trees in the rights-of-way of 69-kilovolt lines, but PPL is doing it to prevent such outages from happening. "We believe it's the right thing to do for safe and reliable electric service for all the customers we serve."
Wirth said 10 or 11 of the 69-kv lines in the Lehigh Valley area were knocked out by trees during Hurricane Sandy. "It was a fairly widespread problem." He could not say if the 69-kv line running through Lower Macungie was one of them.
He said PPL already has completed tree removal on rights-of-way of all its higher voltage lines. "After the hurricane, there was not a single tree-related power outage on any of those higher voltage lines where this work had been done."
Accompanying Wirth was PPL regional forester Earl Burnside and William Klokis, head of vegetation management at PPL. Wirth said Burnside already has met with many residents.
Burnside said when he meets with them, he takes a copy of the right-of-way easement for their specific property and shows it to them, especially "where it says the rights that we have."
Wirth said PPL only does the work permitted by its easement for each property. "In all cases we have valid property easements to do this work."
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