LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Lower Macungie officials emphatically defended themselves Thursday night when a township resident accused them of doing "absolutely nothing" to stop PPL from recently cutting down hundreds of trees beneath power lines in the township.
"I'm personally upset that you did nothing," declared resident Randy Fritz, who reminded commissioners that "this is an election year."
Officials told Fritz they objected to PPL's plans, convinced PPL to delay removing trees and persuaded the electric utility to attend a meeting with residents at the township municipal building before proceeding.
Ron Eichenberg, president of the five commissioners, said he normally does not respond to public comments at meetings but told Fritz: "I am strongly offended by the accusation -- and the threat -- that this board did nothing. We did, sir. We as a board confronted PPL. We brought PPL in here for a public meeting. We allowed residents to come in here and meet with PPL. This board has done everything possible."
As Eichenberg responded, he confronted Fritz both for interrupting him and for shaking his head while Eichenberg was speaking.
Fritz, who described himself as "a quiet resident of the township for quite some time, "called residents the "little guys" and implied township officials only care about "the big boys," such as PPL. He claimed residents don't come to commissioners meetings because they are not really heard.
Fritz demanded: "I want some action from this board to help us, so these poor folks don't have to pay their own money for something that you guys should have stood up and stopped PPL from doing."
"We did our best to have them not do it," said Eichenberg. "We were totally overruled."
"We didn't want this to happen," agreed township manager Bruce Fosselman. "I spent the last month trying to figure out what to do. We tried everything."
Township commissioner James Lancsek advised Fritz: "We cannot spend taxpayer money to improve private property for you or your neighbors."
Fritz said the commissioners should at least have delayed PPL. Fosselman said PPL did not even have to give residents notice that it was going to remove trees. He said PPL crews were about to start cutting trees about two months ago when "we stopped them." He explained township solicitor Richard Somach called PPL lawyers and pleaded with the company to delay.
Somach also took offense at Fritz's claim that the township did nothing. "We did everything we could do legally and extra-legally" – including exerting pressure on PPL.
Eichenberg said the township sought help from State Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, State Senator Pat Browne, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent and U.S. Senator Pat Toomey.
Somach also contacted the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
Said Eichenberg: "We had all the political power that we could bring to bear to stop this. We were told ‘you cannot stop it'. "We wish we could have done something. There is nothing in our power we could have done."
Township officials stressed PPL has a legal right to remove trees in its power line rights-of-way. Lancsek said if there was any legal way for Lower Macungie to delay or stop PPL, "we would have taken it, believe me. We were searching for one."
Somach invited Fritz to show him wording in the first-class township code that gives Lower Macungie the authority to stop PPL. "Maybe I was out of class that day, but if you know something I don't know, please tell me."
Fritz acknowledged what PPL did is legal, but added: "Morally, what they did was wrong."
To better protect its power lines from widespread outages caused by trees, PPL originally planned to start cutting trees in Lower Macungie on March 4. They were removed earlier this month.
On March 7, at the township's request, PPL met with more than 40 angry residents for almost two hours in the township building. Fritz, who lives on Lantern Court, said he was not at that meeting.
Before the trees were removed, Eichenberg called PPL's plan "a scorched earth policy." At the March 7 meeting, he said he hoped some middle ground could be reached with PPL: "No one up here is happy about having our power out for days. Nor do we want the vegetation totally devastated."
Eichenberg said homeowners along Sauerkraut Lane lost trees, as did those in the Winding Brook development. "Our hearts go out to every property owner."
Eichenberg and Commissioner Ryan Conrad said the township is working with residents to restore the privacy they lost in their yards when trees were removed. Options mentioned included creating some kind of uniform fencing or screens of vegetation.
"We're still on this," said Conrad. "We haven't given up."
Fosselman said the township and Mackenzie unsuccessfully attempted to get a state grant to plant replacement trees for residents. PPL does not want residents to plant new trees beneath its power lines.
Ken Navitsky, who works for Mackenzie, suggested all residents who lost trees should get together and agree about what they want done.
Christopher Doll, one of Fritz's neighbors, thanked the commissioners for everything they have done. Doll said PPL took 48 trees from his property. "We were pretty much devastated by that sight," he said. "It looked like Agent Orange had been dropped."
Resident Dingjun Wu, who said his daughter cried when she saw all the trees were gone, also thanked commissioners for their help.
Also during the meeting:
• Township engineer William Erdman predicted the one-lane-wide Church Lane Bridge, which has been closed since April 2011, should be repaired and reopened by early May.
• Commissioners authorized Erdman to seek bids from contactors for off-site safety improvements in neighborhoods around Willow Lane Elementary School, because more children will be walking to and from that school next fall.
Those improvements now will include yellow school zone signs, without reduced speed limits, along Sauerkraut Lane.
The township also will install solar-powered 15 mph flashing school zone signals along Willow Lane and Mill Creek Road at the school. The township's off-site improvements, which also include crosswalks and handicapped ramps, should be completed by early August, before school starts.
• By the middle of next week, the township anticipates receiving plans for on-site improvements that will be made at the elementary school by East Penn School District.
Those plans must be approved by township commissioners. Erdman said how long approval will take will depend on "how many issues we have when we see those plans."
He indicated the township's review will incorporate concerns expressed by residents about the district's plans.
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