STRATFORD Power struggle takes root
STRATFORD — The people who live on Elm Street are taking a good, long look at their majestic curbside trees for good reason — they they fear that they won’t be around much longer.
Sometime in 2019, crews are scheduled to take down trees that threaten power lines in a swath of the South End of Stratford as part of a long-running effort to make the region more resistant to damaging winds and ice.
But some fear that in this zeal to protect power lines, the town will be appear denuded, bereft of the leafy shade on hot summer days.
“If this were a town like Litchfield or New Canaan, they wouldn’t be nearly as eager to take down these beautiful trees,” said Ed Goodrich, a resident of Elm Street who was at a recent impromptu gathering of residents in that part of town — all of them in favor of leaving the trees pretty much as they are.
The United Illuminating Company said that for now, Elm Street is the only street that’s on its list for next year’s tree-removal campaign. More streets will be added to the list soon.
UI officials say the area they’re looking at extends from Stratford Avenue (Rt. 130) south to Sikorsky Memorial Airport — essentially all of the South End, not including the Lordship enclave.
The utility, town officials and residents are torn over the value of urban shade trees contrasted with the need to limit power interruptions when hurricanes hit. In 2011, Irene left 700,000 customers without power in Connecticut, and some — including scores in Stratford — had to wait a week or more before their lights came on again. And a year later, Sandy left about 250,000 customers in the dark statewide.
“I lived here all my life and I love these trees — I don’t want to see them taken away,” said Elizabeth Hart, as Goodrich and the other neighbors met near the entrance of the former American Shakespeare Festival Theatre.
“They’re a very important part of the ecosystem,” said Kristina Rooney, who also lives on Elm Street. “I’ve watched the night herons nest in these trees over the years.”
Rooney’s neighbor, Peter Bowe, agreed. “We have two sycamores on our property, two of which the power company might want to take down,” he said. “These trees are well over 100 years old, and let’s not forget that the utility poles have been replaced many times in the last century.”
UI officials counter that trees and tree limbs falling on wires causes about three-fourths of power failures.
“We’re seeing both the frequency and intensity of storms increase,” said UI spokesman Ed Crowder. “While we want to increase the distance between vegetation and power lines, we also want to respect the rights of the homeowners.”
Crowder said that the company, with help of UI arborists, consider trees near power lines “on a tree-by-tree basis” and that property owners are consulted.
For trees that are on town property, particularly the grassy strip between the street and the sidewalk, the town tree warden is consulted. The campaign is still its early stages, and more detailed plans will the drawn up in the coming weeks and months, Crowder said.
A tree-removal campaign in 2016 also didn’t sit well with many in town. They were aghast after seeing Huntington Road and Wilcoxson Avenue denuded of their leafy canopies. And now even Town Hall, which in past years was foursquare behind the storm-hardening campaign, is having second thoughts about putting volts over vegetation.
“It has been my practice to deny UI’s removal of any tree that is healthy,” said Christina Senft-Batoh, the town’s conservation superintendent and its tree warden. “I deny or request modification for pruning that seems excessive.”
She added that homeowners should be vigilant to object to any removals proposed by UI that they do not agree with.
“Even if the tree is a town tree, UI will contact the adjacent property owner for input,” Senft-Batoh said. “The homeowner can object to a removal outright, or request modification to a pruning.”
Still, everyone knows that falling trees and limbs cause blackouts, and now utilities are seeing a new threat to trees — drought.
Eversource, the power company that feeds most of Connecticut, said that it’s concerned about trees that have suffered in the drought years of 2016 and 2017, many of which threaten power lines if they came down.
“Sustained drought conditions in New England followed by above-average rainfall this year, combined with insect infestations, are having a devastating effect on trees,” said Eversource spokesman Mitch Gross. He added that the wet summer has made matters even worse — in their weakened state, their branches now have a heavy crop of leaves.
“Suffering from weakened root systems, these trees are now more susceptible to uprooting,” Gross said.
But walk down Elm Street, and you’ll find few who would want to hear the whine of the chainsaw.
“This is an exceptionally important tree,” said Joe Koripsky while standing under a huge sycamore, a tree that has power lines running alongside its massive trunk with mottled bark. “People care about these trees.”
His friend David Durgy agreed.
“It’s like a postcard here,” he said. “In the winter, with the snow on the branches, in the fall, with the colors and in the summer, with the canopy of leaves.”
Officials say power companies retain the right to prune branches that are in direct contact with power lines and the company can take more drastic measures if, for example, there’s evidence of a line or a transformer burning branches.
Meanwhile, the town is planting trees for future generations.
“In 2017 we planted about 45 trees in esplanades, parks, and school grounds that offered enough space,” Senft-Batoh said. “I’d like to do this again in a year or two. We also offered a discount program last year for residents to purchase trees from Ganim’s (Garden Center and Florist, in Fairfield) ... at a discounted rate if the homeowner planted and maintained the tree on their private property.”