Representatives from Baltimore Gas and Electric told Towson residents on Thursday that the utility is implementing "selective undergrounding" of some utility lines in Stoneleigh, Wiltondale, Rodgers Forge and other neighborhoods, as well as an aggressive tree trimming plan throughout the region in response to interruptions that crippled many communities after the late-June derecho storm.
More than 40 residents gathered Thursday night, Oct. 18, at the meeting of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. Fifth District County Councilman David Marks and GTCCA leaders had organized the session for residents to air their lingering concerns about the storm and lengthy outages.
BGE officials said they are working to address three chief concerns — infrastructure upgrades, the impact of falling trees, and communication between the utility and customers — and will spend some $43 million in the greater Towson area between now and 2016 on "reliability" upgrades.
Michael Garzon, a BGE supervisor of customer reliability, said the utility is focusing much of its attention on areas of Stoneleigh, Rodgers Forge, Hampton, Wiltondale and the Valley Garth area for the most aggressive work, in hopes of curbing potential for damage in the future. Some areas of Towson were cut off from power for five to eight days in the aftermath of the June 29 storm.
Chief among the issues is tree trimming. Garzon said BGE is implementing a "blue sky" approach, essentially meaning that crews will cut back limbs around lines so that there are none overhanging the wires. He said the utility is also working to replace "weaker wood" trees with sturdier species that can better stand up to high winds.
But he noted that some property owners won't give permission to cut trees back as far as BGE would like, and "no matter what tree trimming we do, it won't hurricane-proof the system."
That's where selective undergrounding will help as well, he said.
That process doesn't mean all lines will go underground, but some segments will. The idea, he said, is that underground lines will still feed existing above-ground connections to homes; but by having some lines underground, they can isolate damage into smaller pockets that can be more easily addressed.
Last month, BGE sent a letter to some residents noting that it had begun installing new underground lines along portions of Stevenson Lane, Cedar Avenue, Newberry Lane, Knollwood Road and Fairway Drive. The work in those areas is projected to carry into early 2013.
In addition, BGE officials said upgrades to he Mount Washington substation, which serves greater Towson as well as northern Baltimore City, would help reliability and alow for future growth; and another project will see installation of new circuits in East Towson neighborhoods.
Garzon said much of the damage that led to long outages this past summer came from incidents where main lines were damaged by trees and smaller, more remote connections were also severed — sometimes in multiple places.
Some residents suffered particularly because of the attributes that make their Towson neighborhoods so attractive, older homes and stately trees. Garzon said rear access of power lines — many older homes have power line access on the back side — can pose a logistics issue for repair crews.
While the length of outages was a clear issue, several residents said a lack of communication exacerbated the problem.
Brian Delay, a Stoneleigh resident, said his frustration reached a peak on the fifth day of the outage, when he encountered a repair worker who couldn't tell him anything.
"I'm asking for basic information, and they're saying, 'I can't speak to you,' " he said.
"I'm wondering why we can't have people in the field — namely you," he said to Garzon. "I've learned more from you in 10 minutes about all this than I did in months."
Marks said many residents set up their own networks of communication with his office to help disseminate status reports from BGE to the community. But he said he also heard from many residents that the utility's website was poor in the way it depicted areas without power and the timetables for repair.
Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE, said officials have heard those complaints, and they are rolling out a website upgrade by the end of the year that will make outage information more clear and provide a way for residents to report outages online.
After the meeting, Marks said he was grateful for the briefing as well as the progress report on infrastructure improvements.
"If rates are going to go up, it's nice to see that we're getting something for it," he said.
Delay, who said he's a member of the Stoneleigh Community Association but wasn't representing them with his comments, said Thursday's session was the third he's attended regarding the derecho response.
"I want us and BGE, to get this right," he said. "I think we're trying to work with BGE; we're not trying to vilify them in the community."
But he said many people, including the elderly members of the community and small children, were "very much adversely affected" by the storm response, particularly in multiple days of 100-plus degree heat.
"It was a public health crisis," he said. "It's a complex issue, (but) eight days, in the United States, in this day and age, is unacceptable."
Reviewing the Recher response
The other hot topic at Thursday's GTCCA session was a storm of another type: the one that swept down York Road on Sept. 23 when a crowd, estimated to have been between 1,500 and 2,000, couldn't get into the Recher Theater for a late night event and had to be dispersed by police.
Baltimore County Police Capt. Jonathan Trentzsch, commander of the Towson Precinct, said he was "very proud of our officers" on the night of the incident.
He said it was 47 officers — from the county, state and university — who dispersed the crowd with essentially little damage done to property.
Seven people were arrested, three officers had minor injuries and one man was shot while walking to a parking garage by unknown assailants, suffering non-life-threatening injuries. That incident is still under investigation, Trentzsch said.
He said in the aftermath, the department has received some concerns from a few businesses, but residents and community groups have been very supportive.
Marks and GTCCA President David Kosak both described the melee as an isolated incident, but each also said it should serve as a talking point for the need for increased police presence as Towson continues to grow and redevelop.
"Redevelopment, the new theater (at Towson Square) — it's going to make Towson more and more a destination location," said Kosak. "There's a need, at the very least, to allocate more resources for Towson."
Trentzsch said 2014, when the Towson Square and other new developments will bring thousands of people to Towson, isn't far away and agreed that "we need to start looking at that right now."
This story has been updated.