Is ruining the beauty of trees a necessary price of electricity? Several North Canton residents charge that an AEP Ohio contractor too aggressively cut trees in the city’s northwest neighborhoods last month.
Doris Hershey said during the 60 years she’s lived on Woodrow Street NW, its majestic decades-old maple trees made it one of the most beautiful streets in the city.
Now the 90-year-old resident says those days are over.
During one week last month, a crew from Asplundh Tree Expert, a company hired by AEP Ohio, cut off branches from nearly all of the trees along a power line along Woodrow’s north side.
State law allows the utilities to cut trees near power lines, even without the property owners’ permission. That’s because trees often lead to outages. In a storm, trees fall on power lines. Growing branches can touch a line, disrupting the flow of power. In winter, ice on trees can snap the lines.
Residents said the workers used chainsaws to remove several branches to the trunks leaving knobs, removed the tops of the trees, and cut away up to 80 percent of each tree’s mass so only remnants were left.
Hershey said she hung a sign on one of the “hacked” maples that said, “Hug Me, I’m dying.”
One tree by her yard was left with only a trunk and a branch. A second lost several branches along with much of its bark.
“Look at the tree over there, one arm. ... they’re dead. They’re dead,” she said. “It’s going to look really sad once the leaves come.”
She said the trees have lined both sides of Woodrow since she moved in around 1953.
“It is a pretty street,” she said, before correcting herself. “It was the prettiest street in North Canton and now it’s gone.”
Hershey is one of several residents who’ve expressed anger and sadness at the aggressiveness with which AEP’s contractor cut the trees in the city’s northwestern neighborhoods.
But AEP says sacrificing the appearance of trees often is the price of helping ensure that residents get electricity.
“We do trim very aggressively because we have an obligation to keep the lights on, and trees contacting the power lines are one of the most common reasons of power failures,” said AEP spokeswoman Vikki Michalski. “We don’t do this because we like to do it. We do it because it’s necessary.”
An AEP brochure says the utility complies with trimming standards set by the International Society of Arboriculture, American National Standards Institute and the Tree Care Industry Association.
“We trim to national standards. It doesn’t generally harm the tree,” said Michalski. “If it’s a healthy tree ... those trees will grow back.”
Former councilman Gary Wechter, 76, who lives on Portage Street, complained about Asplundh’s work at a council meeting March 25. He later showed The Repository several trees in his neighborhood that he said had been “whacked.”
Page 2 of 4 - He said instead of just cutting limbs, entire branches were cut, even ones as thick as 16 inches in diameter. Often, all of the branches on one side of the tree facing the power line were cut, which is in accordance with AEP’s standards.
“When you trim that, it’s like cutting the head off a person,” Wechter said. “They didn’t need to cut all those branches off that they did.”
Now he’s stuck with the view across Portage of the little stumps on his neighbor’s severely cut maple.
“Instead of seeing a beautiful maple tree in October with all these leaves, I’m going to see an amputee,” he said. “It makes me sick.”
Jeff Pecenko, 47, who lives on Woodrow, said he got a letter from Asplundh around late February saying its crews would be trimming trees in his area.
He thought the work would involve some pruning.
But when he came home from work a few weeks ago, he found that much of the tree by the power line in front of his house was gone.
Pecenko claimed many of the removed branches were not in a position to affect the power lines.
He said while the city owned the trees, the cutting will affect his view and property value.
“I was very disappointed by the over-aggressiveness of the pruning,” he said. “I think it’s diminished the aesthetic appeal of the street.”
Jim Gensley, 63, Pecenko’s neighbor, said the trees “look terrible.”
“I think it was come in, hack and get out of there,” he said. “I mean it’s a butcher job.”
Up the street, Emily Iero said her friends now tell her, “Oh you live on Stump Row. Not Woodrow.”
Kristin Wild, a corporate communications staffer for Asplundh based in Willow Grove, Pa., referred questions to AEP.
“We work by their specifications,” she said.
Dick Drake, who’s worked as a certified arborist for Canton, disputes that AEP and Asplundh always follow national standards.
“I’ve seen what they’ve done in Canton and what they’ve done in Massillon,” he said. “What they’re doing is they’re not following their code. They’re (cutting) double and triple so they don’t have to come back the next cycle.”
Drake said trees older than 50 years that are substantially cut and lose more than 25 percent of their leaf-bearing canopy won’t recover, pose a threat to fall on a person or a home and should be cut down.
He said unless a city has an ordinance that protects its trees, utilities can cut as much as they want around the power lines.
Page 3 of 4 - “They go through and chop the crap out of trees,” Drake said. “Some crews are decent. Others could care less. They just mutilate the crap out of them.”
Acknowledging that utilities can’t have trees knocking out power, he said trees by power lines should be entirely removed and new ones should be planted far from the lines.
John Williams, the director of service monitoring and enforcement for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said AEP, like many utilities, has been cutting trees more frequently since 2009. At the PUCO’s encouragement to increase system reliability, it’s been shifting from focusing on trimming trees in areas with frequent outages to trimming all trees by power lines at least once every four years.
He said any resident can file an informal or formal complaint with the PUCO about a utility’s tree trimming practices. However, Williams said, there’s no PUCO regulation restricting utilities from cutting too much, unless it’s in violation of the vegetation management plan filed with the PUCO. He said PUCO inspectors focus on ensuring that utilities have cut enough, not to prevent excessive tree cutting.
City Administrator Mike Grimes said it’s not clear yet whether the damage to the city’s trees is permanent.
“I agree they have to cut them and it’s important to keep the air conditioners running and the heaters running and the power (running) to their residents,” he said. But, “I really think they could have done a really nicer job on this.”
Councilman Doug Foltz, Ward 1, a former Canton City parks official, said he understands AEP has to take measures to control tree growth. But he said the trees with branches removed at the trunk look “too ugly.” He agrees with Drake that some trees by power lines should be removed. He said AEP representatives should have met with residents before the tree trimming and should pay for new trees to be planted away from the lines.
“You’re cutting the trees back so much, they’re not going to survive. If they do grow back, it’s going to be an ugly growth,” said Foltz.
“I feel bad when I look at the trees and see how they’ve been defaced,” said Councilman Dan Griffith, At-Large, who lives on Woodrow. “It’s not that we don’t think the trees shouldn’t get cut. ... it’s a matter of how and how much.”
Thelma Uber, 97, who lives on Willaman Street NW, said she saw what the tree cutting crews had done to her neighbors’ trees. When she noticed several workers starting to cut the branches off her front-yard oak tree, she ran outside and objected. Her late husband had planted that tree about 60 years ago, and she said she hires a tree trimmer every few years to cut it.
Page 4 of 4 - “He stopped right away. He said, ‘we’ll move on,’” she recalled.