BWL Tree Cutting Causes Distress for Some in East Lansing

Monday, July 10, 2017, 7:25 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

“I have been very vocal in my support for the Board [of Water and Light] and their trimming efforts,” East Lansing resident Mark Terry tells ELi. “I felt that, in most instances, owners were unduly cynical in their mistrust of the BWL and general disdain for their intentions and competence. I stand corrected.”

Terry is speaking from his recent experience with what happened at his family’s property at 343 M.A.C. Avenue, where Wright Tree Service, hired by BWL, topped a Norway spruce that has grown on the property for at least 100 years. The photo above shows the tree topped. This photo shows the tree as it existed before:

The property has been in Terry’s wife’s family for over a hundred years. Although the house at 343 M.A.C. Avenue is today rented, the neighborhood long ago turned into a student-rental area, the house is landmarked and in a designated Historic District. This photo below shows the house (closest to the viewer, to the right) back when a train line called the Interurban ran down what is now M.A.C. Avenue, from East Lansing to Owosso.

Says Terry about the photo, “If you look carefully, you'll see wagon wheel tracks on either side. You might also note the partial wagon behind one of the houses.” It appears from family photos that the tree dates back far enough to have witnessed the Interurban running past it. And that, for Terry and his family, is part of the pain over seeing what BWL has done to this old tree.

BWL has been engaged in a wide-scale “vegetation management program” in East Lansing since, following a devastating ice storm in December 2013, the Lansing-owned utility was criticized for years-long failure to keep trees away from its lines. Because so many trees came down on lines, that storm left thousands in East Lansing without power for a prolonged cold-spell. During the crisis, BWL failed to bring in enough crews - something for which the company was also taken to task in two formal follow-up investigations.

In the last year, people around the area have raised objections to various aspects of the BWL tree-cutting program. Beth LeBlanc recently reported for the Lansing State Journal on one Whitehills resident’s anger over the way BWL’s trimmers managed her East Lansing property.

The scene in East Lansing poses a bigger challenge for BWL than with other nearby communities. That’s because, back when M.S.U. was Michigan Agricultural College (after which M.A.C. Avenue is named), the City saw the development and preservation of an intentional urban forest. Today, many property owners in East Lansing know and value not only their old-growth trees, but also the specific histories of those trees. And that makes seeing them heavily trimmed or killed an emotional experience for many.

The Terrys provided the photo below, from the 1950s. It shows Kathi Terry, Mark Terry’s wife, with her sister and grandfather, with the tree that was recently topped shown in the background. “Grandpa” was the prominent architect Harold Childs, designer of the Orchard Street Pump House, the English Inn, and other noted local historic structures. Childs’ association with the house at 343 M.A.C. Avenue is why the house is landmarked.

In many cases, BWL did no cutting along lines running through various neighborhoods for many decades. It is common to see trees that are eighty-, ninety-, or even a hundred-years-old growing through BWL wires around East Lansing. The result is that now, particularly because BWL is installing higher-powered lines, the cutting of old-growth in some cases must be pretty severe.

According to Amy Adamy, Communications Coordinator for BWL, Terry said he didn’t want the Norway spruce removed. “We explained the tree would then need to be topped, per our standards.” Says Adamy, “We continue to trim to our standards in all of East Lansing and the rest of BWL’s service territory.”

Terry says the spokesperson he talked to before the cutting noted to him that the tree had been previously trimmed back away from the line, “and assured me this treatment/cut-point would be similar, with the potential for some side-trim, if needed.” The Terrys were consequently shocked to see what Wright Tree Company did to the tree. Wright also damaged the wooden fence on the property, and has said the company will repair it.

Terry tells ELi, “I have previously supported the Board in their efforts to secure safe space for their lines. Through earlier negligence, they had allowed literal forests to grow up and around them, making prolonged outages inevitable without corrective action. Carving safe spaces out of that foliage was never meant to be pretty, but it needed to be done.”

But, he adds, “This case was really quite different: the tree was an evergreen, that had been there over 100 years, offset a safe distance and growing straight up. There was no interference with their lines. It had been topped once, and side-trimmed, and those branches still curved away from the lines, as they had been trained. The top had sprouted two new shoots, which had grown perhaps 15 feet or so since then. This was where we were told the new trim would take place, and that was acceptable to us.”

He goes on: “What happened, of course, was something quite different, as the pictures show, and was really tantamount to destruction of the tree. Ignoring the visual and emotional shock of this loss, we are left with some very serious concerns about the competence of the people who betrayed us, as they control the water and power for most of our region. This fairly simple matter has exposed a bureaucracy that can't seem to get out of its own way. Bad decisions, bad communication, failure to follow through - is this a glimpse into a typical day at the BWL? I believe we should all be deeply concerned.”

The City of East Lansing is currently engaged in a survey of the City’s urban forest in an attempt to preserve it, as ELi’s Paige Filice recently reported for our readers. One ELi reader, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution by BWL, sent in a message to us, asking, "Why don't you ask council members to reconcile why they spent money on the tree survey to protect our urban forest but have done NOTHING to protect the city's and taxpayers[‘ trees] from the BWL's deforestation program?”

City Councilmembers Mark Meadows, Shanna Draheim, and Susan Woods were away on vacation so did not answer this message when conveyed last week. Ruth Beier indicated the question is really for City Manager George Lahanas, who was also away on vacation. Erik Altmann suggested the reader bring the question to him or City Council. I responded that, given that Richard and Conni Crittenden were sued by BWL after they challenged BWL’s tree-cutting program with a yard-sign campaign, some citizens do not feel they can safely present their concerns to elected officials or the City. (Altmann did not respond further.)

This City Council debated a tree protection ordinance in December 2015 but has not taken action on the matter. At the meeting where the draft ordinance was discussed, Calvin Jones of BWL spoke in opposition to the proposed ordinance, saying BWL had “strong reservations” about it. Jones said that it would hinder BWL’s ability to “maintain vegetation” and therefore impact the human community’s “health, safety, and general welfare.”

 

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Disclosure: Mark Terry is a financial supporter of East Lansing Info.