MontCo lawmakers draft bill to protect trees from Pepco crews

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye
Two Montgomery County Council members are drafting legislation to make sure Pepco doesn't harm the county's tree canopy a few months after Maryland's utility regulator told Pepco to trim more trees.

The bill, likely to be introduced mid-April, will "ensure tree trimming is done in a manner consistent with the highest environmental standards," and require Pepco to give property owners a written statement of their rights, said Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, who is working with Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large, on the bill.

Elrich and Berliner hope to include other protections for trees lining "rustic roads" and require Pepco to remove tree stumps left behind, they said.

It also would give Pepco the right to cut trees on private property when a county arborist agrees that the trees pose an immediate threat to a power line, even when property owners don't agree.

Berliner declined to release a draft of the bill before it is circulated among his fellow council members.

The effort has been in the works since last summer, when Berliner accused Pepco leaders of being "the Paul Bunyan of trees," and the need for tree-trimming guidelines was strengthened after the Maryland Public Service Commission -- while slapping Pepco with a $1 million fine for unreliable service -- ordered the company to better manage the vegetation around power lines, the lawmakers said.

"Because they didn't do what they should have been doing for many years, they have now ratcheted it up," Berliner said.

Though Jerry Pasternak, Pepco vice president for Maryland affairs, declined to comment on legislation that has not been introduced, he said the company's tree-trimming practice, which is to cut back four years' worth of growth, is consistent with the commission mandate. The practice of leaving tree stumps behind is the same as the practice of every other utility in Maryland, he said.

The stumps have been a specific topic of concern among many county residents, who have written letters complaining about it to lawmakers.

When the stump is left behind, new trees cannot be planted, said Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

Pepco has told many residents that removing tree stumps would require the company to raise rates, but Taylor said removal should be considered "part of the cost of doing business."

In Chevy Chase, resident Bob Silverberg said he has watched as Pepco chopped away at trees that were nowhere near the power lines.

"My concern and I think the concern of my neighbors is that there's a lack of balance in Pepco's scorched-earth vegetation management," he said. "We wouldn't have to be using this wildly exaggerated trimming and removal had they just been doing their job in the first place."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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