Eversource appealing Darien tree warden's decision to not remove trees

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Eversource personnel take a closer look along the power lines running between Little Brook Road and the Metro North rail line.

Eversource personnel take a closer look along the power lines running between Little Brook Road and the Metro North rail line.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Eversource is appealing the town tree warden’s decision that keeps it from removing dozens of trees in the Little Brook Road area as part of the power company’s vegetation management plan.

The proposal to cut the trees has sparked controversy in town with many residents speaking out against the proposal citing environmental, safety and quality of life concerns. Eversource maintains that the clear-cutting is needed to ensure the safety and reliability of the power grid.

Darien Tree Warden Michael Cotta issued a decision on Sept. 22, saying 21 of the tagged trees could come down because they are “diseased, defective or dead and provide little or no environmental benefit.” The decision came a day after a virtual public hearing drew 100 people, with most of the speakers opposing the proposal.

His decision only concerns the trees in the town right-of-way adjacent to Little Brook Road and Raymond Street. The bulk of Eversource’s plan — which spans 18 miles along the company’s transmission lines, including 3.5 miles in Darien — involves clear-cutting on the state Department of Transportation property along the railroad tracks.

Eversource is appealing Cotta’s decision on the remaining 71 trees for the area to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and requesting mediation between the company and the town.

“We are committed to finding a creative, alternative approach in partnership with the community to address the trees that need to be removed in Darien,” said Mitch Gross, an Eversource spokesman. “We have requested mediation with the town tree warden and other community leaders in an attempt to work together on this.”

If a mediation can’t happen, then Eversource is requesting a hearing, according to the filing.

“Non-compatible trees have no place in transmission rights of way as they threaten reliability for our customers,” Gross said. “We look forward to working through the mediation process to find a collaborative solution.”

Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson the appeal was expected.

“Eversource is doing what they feel need to do to facilitate their transmission line vegetation management project,” she said.

She said she the appeal triggers the mediation process, but doesn’t have information on timing yet.

“We will be eager to share our concerns with PURA during the mediation process,” Stevenson said.

Eversource plans to remove “incompatible trees,” which are considered to be trees at least 15 feet tall within 25 feet of the transmission lines. Officials have said there’s a greater risk of these trees catching fire if electricity arcs from the lines.

“Per Eversource’s specification and industry best management practices, the incompatible trees were requested for removal based on current and future conditions of the trees, taking into consideration the calculated potential movement of the lines including line sag and wire blowout, tree growth and mature heights, as well as the movement of lines and trees under all weather conditions,” Eversource wrote in its appeal.

Residents have challenged the assertion that all of the tagged trees are a risk and argued that if that many had to be removed, there should be more trees in the replanting plan to offset the clear-cut trees. While some residents have said the number of trees the company plans to cut are in the thousands, Eversource hasn’t given a total number of trees for removal.

Critics of the clear-cutting have said the trees provide needed shade to keep the neighborhood cool, as a habitat for wildlife and help mitigate the severe flooding the town has experienced recently. Residents also said the current trees shield the train tracks from children who play there and cutting them down will make the area more dangerous, increase noise pollution and hurt property values.

“Eversource understands and respects the important aesthetic and other interests that municipalities and the public attribute to trees,” the company wrote in the appeal. “Eversource also values its longstanding relationships with the towns it serves, including the Town of Darien. On August 4, 2020, however, Tropical Storm Isaias demonstrated that these aesthetic values must be balanced against the necessity of mitigating tree-caused power outages.”

According to the appeal, about 93 percent of the 21,669 outage locations on Eversource’s system during that storm were caused by trees.

The appeal didn’t say how many of those outages were in Darien.

“Additionally, Eversource’s proposed tree work will reduce the risk of a service interruption for numerous critical facilities across multiple communities, including hospitals, vaccine distribution sites and police and fire stations,” the appeal said. “A fault on our transmission system would wreak havoc for our large commercial and industrial customers in the Fairfield County area and interfere with transportation in the region.”

Residents have also questioned the truth of the argument, which has come up frequently during the permit process.