Trees return in Towson

The Baltimore Sun

It seemed like a lot of fuss over five little trees, but to Andrea Soukup they meant more than words could convey.

With smiles lighting up their faces, Soukup and a small group of neighbors watched yesterday as contractors for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. pulled the quintet of American holly trees from a pickup truck at their designated new home, a hillside along Cromwell Bridge Road in Towson, just southwest of the Beltway.

Then Soukup was handed a shovel, as were state Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier and several BGE officials, and asked to perform some ceremonial digging in the dirt.

With that act, a yearlong dispute between the utility company and residents of a three-mile stretch of Cromwell Bridge Road came to an end, and all sides pronounced themselves satisfied. The five trees planted yesterday were the first of some 800 trees and shrubs that are to be in place by late spring.

"It's great," said Soukup, who is president of the Cromwell Bridge Community Association. "We never thought we'd get anything."

The quarrel erupted in November 2007 when BGE, with scant warning, felled hundreds of trees along the road, citing their proximity to major power lines that transmit electricity to some 50,000 of the utility's customers in Towson. Many of the trees had grown dangerously close to the 115,000-volt lines, BGE officials said later, while others were unhealthy and in danger of toppling, either onto the lines or into the road.

Soukup and her neighbors had been particularly alarmed by what they said was BGE's stated intention of spraying chemical retardants "so that nothing would grow," said Jim Kelly, a leader of Friends of Cromwell Valley Park.

But BGE officials insisted that they had no choice but to fell the trees, given their overgrown and in some cases dilapidated condition. Tim Birx, a forester for the utility, said the area was "basically a jungle" of white pines, poplars and reedy locust trees, many perched at precarious angles.

Once the cutting began, the reaction was blunt and vociferous, so much so that the work was halted for a time as BGE sought to mollify its critics.

Klausmeier said before picking up her shovel yesterday that she remembered driving along Cromwell Bridge Road shortly after the trees had been cut down and exclaiming, "Oh, my God! What happened?"

Patricia Novak, a 30-year resident of the area, took note of BGE's avowal on its Web site that "preserving, nurturing and protecting our natural resources has been a long-standing commitment in all that we do" and that the utility's "ultimate goal is to operate in a manner that allows us to earn your environmental trust."

Novak said that, in light of the felling of so many trees, such a promise was "ludicrous and insulting."

Kirsten Coffen, an area resident and landscape architect who helped the utility come up with the replanting plan, said BGE officials had been "dragged into it kicking and screaming."

Coffen said it was ironic that Cromwell Bridge Road, a gateway to the heavily forested areas of northern Baltimore County, had been designated a Maryland Scenic Byway shortly before BGE cut the trees down.

"All the beauty that got it that designation was clear-cut," Coffen said, adding that the new trees will go at least part way toward restoring some of the area's verdant charm.

The replacements will be a mixture of deciduous trees (downy serviceberries, redbuds and hornbeams), evergreen trees and shrubs (sweetbay magnolias and American hollies), and other shrubs such as speckled alder, spicebush and sweetshrub.

Christopher Burton, a BGE senior vice president, said planting the new trees and shrubs "allows us to meet our obligations" and that everyone is "looking forward to seeing what this looks like in the spring."

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