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Homeowners go out on a limb

The Baltimore Sun

Some Halethorpe residents who are clashing with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. have signed five-year agreements with the utility company to permit the clearing of trees on their property.

The agreement between BGE and residents states that the trees near the transmission lines, in which the company has a right of way, will be removed in "approximately five years" or when it is "deemed necessary" and owners will be offered $175 per tree.

Even without the agreement, the utility can cut vegetation within 33 feet from both sides of its transmission lines.

BGE has the right of way when that 66-foot area overlaps with private property, which has caused tension with owners who want their trees trimmed rather than removed.

Residents said their trees block the view of the electric towers, as well as provide shade for their homes during hot weather and create a natural buffer from the wind during colder seasons.

But Bill Rees, the director of forestry for BGE, said having trees under transmission lines poses a risk.

"We don't want any possibility of having any outages because of trees," he said. "They are extremely important lines to provide service."

Trees near the transmission lines played a role in the 2003 blackout that affected the Northeast, said Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE. "We don't want something to happen here. We have to be proactive."

Halethorpe residents like Bruce Packal said some of the trees are not tall enough to obstruct the transmission lines, such as his 9-foot cherry tree and a Japanese maple.

"The full mature height is 15 feet," he said. "Even if you left it for 1,000 years, there's no way they would impede with the lines."

Regardless of the tree's height, the area around the transmission lines must be clear, Rees said.

"You need to have areas that are free. You want clearance area to get equipment in to maintain and repair the lines and also that the trees don't interfere with an inspector during a walk-through," he said. "You don't want to look through tree branches to inspect the insulators."

The agreement allows residents to keep their trees for a while and the $175 is to encourage them to plant low-growing trees outside BGE's right of way, company officials said.

"If the customer has planted low-growing trees, those trees will have time to grow when tall-growing trees have been removed, so it won't be a dramatic change," Foy said.

BGE is extending the agreements as a courtesy, although the utility is under no legal obligation, she said.

"We do above and beyond. We understand that customers don't like losing trees. We try to work with them to balance our needs to protect our lines and their desires to protect the trees," Foy said.

Even if residents refuse to sign the agreement, the utility has the legal authority to cut the trees on their property.

"If they don't want to enter into the agreement, we will remove the trees at the present time," Rees said.

Earlier this month, Jackie Hedeman, 66, a lifelong resident of Gun Road, signed the agreement. "My choice was to sign it or lose all the trees right away. So I guess I took the lesser of two evils," she said.

The company's approach troubles her neighbor, Packal.

"I've worked with BGE before and I've been OK with it," he said. "Now it's no holds barred. You sign the document for five years or you get out of the way, we're cutting everything down."

Hedeman, who will lose nine trees, worries that her front yard will look "bare with just tree stumps and piles of wood."

Residents said crews leave the wood on their property after chopping the trees.

Three years ago, Hedeman said she permitted the removal of an ash tree, which sat outside BGE's right of way. The workers left large chunks of wood by the tree stump.

"If I didn't have a brother and a neighbor, it would've cost me a fortune to move it," she said.

Rees said, however, that the crews leave behind the wood only if the owner wants it as firewood. The company's policy is to take wood away from the property and to cut the stumps to the ground.

"In the case of Gun Road, we have internal danger trees - trees that are off the right of way that can grow into or fall into the lines," Rees said. "What we do is try to prune those."

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