MontCo attorney: County can't regulate Pepco tree trimming

Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Montgomery County does not have the legal authority to regulate utilities, or the way utilities cut down trees, the county attorney said in a new opinion.

Regulating utilities is the responsibility of the Maryland Public Service Commission and state lawmakers, County Attorney Marc Hansen wrote. Instead, the county can legislate requirements for tree-trimming practices, but those practices have to apply to everybody, not just utilities.

As a result, a bill before the County Council aimed at reining in Pepco's tree-trimming practices would need to be changed to affect everyone who wants to cut down trees on county-owned property, Hansen said.

For example, as written, the bill requires utilities to grind the stumps left behind when they chop down a tree and fill in the resulting hole. To accomplish the same goal, the bill should be amended to require everyone cutting down trees on county-owned property to grind stumps.

Likewise, while the current bill requires utilities to obtain a county permit before cutting down a tree on a "rural or rustic road," it could be amended to require everyone to get a permit. And where the bill requires property owners to cut down trees that a county arborist determines to be hazardous to utility lines, it could be changed to require property owners to cut down trees hazardous to people, a house or any other structure.

The changes Hansen suggested could be acceptable if they provide enough protection for the county's tree canopy, said Montgomery Countryside Alliance Executive Director Caroline Taylor. "If the net effect is that Pepco is left alone to continue this draconian tree trimming, then it's not fine."

Pepco stepped up its tree-trimming practices in light of new regulations from the Maryland Public Service Commission and a $1 million fine for failing to offer reliable service during storms in 2009 and 2010.

But Montgomery County residents have been vocal about protecting the county's beloved tree canopy.

"Their operations have been overly aggressive," Casey Trees Executive Director and arborist Marc Buscaino said at a council public hearing Tuesday night.

However, the bill that Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large, and Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, introduced would "impair and slow down our efforts to improve electric service reliability, increase costs [and] have no impact on tree pruning techniques," which are governed by state law, Pepco Vice President for Maryland Affairs Jerry Pasternak said in a letter to the County Council on Tuesday.

The bill would cause electricity rates to rise and threaten the positive results Pepco's tree-trimming practices have had, said Gigi Godwin, Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.

Elrich and Berliner did not return calls for comment. The Public Service Commission and Hansen declined comment.

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