Pepco Region President Donna Cooper Credit: April Witt

Pepco Region President Donna M. Cooper said Tuesday night that the utility will halt its controversial tree cutting along a transmission corridor in Potomac, at least temporarily, while she reviews complaints and considers options.

Cooper offered that concession after an occasionally contentious town hall meeting in Rockville Tuesday night with nearly 100 homeowners from Potomac and other area towns, many of whom complained that Pepco’s aggressive tree-cutting is deforesting their yards and neighborhoods in the name of electric reliability.

“Our beautiful county should now be known as ‘Stumpgomery’,” Fred Goodman, a businessman who lives in Inverness Forest subdivision of Potomac, said.  “We want you to know, Ms. Cooper, that Pepco has wrought devastation to our county and continues to bring it every day on our homes, our neighborhood and the entrance-ways to our neighborhoods under the guise of proper vegetation management.”

County Executive Ike Leggett prompted the town hall meeting when he telephoned Cooper last month asking for her help after 20 Potomac homeowners met privately with him, showed him photographs of once-lush yards largely denuded by Pepco’s tree-cutting contractor, Asplundh.

Pepco has been under pressure in recent years to improve its performance after a series of storms knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of its customers.  In 2011, Maryland’s Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates utilities, fined Pepco $1 million for poor performance.  The Maryland Electricity Reliability Act – sponsored by Montgomery County legislators – required regulators to set new performance standards and penalty for utilities.  In response, state regulators developed new standards for improving power companies’ performance by, among other things, better “vegetation management.” The standards—known as RM 43—dictate how close tree branches can grow to different types of power lines. If a utility deems that 25 percent or more of a tree’s crown needs to be removed in order to keep all limbs the required distance from the power lines, then the tree must come down, RM 43 says.

Hecklers interrupted a presentation by Pepco Vice President Jerry Pasternak in which he said that the utility ran afoul of state regulators in the past because it had been too lax in its tree-trimming and that most power outages in some recent storms were tree-related.

Bethesda arborist Ann Gallagher, one of the homeowners critical of Pepco, said that the utility is cutting down trees that could be trimmed and blaming dangerous trees for its performance failures. Equipment failures caused more outages in one recent storm than falling trees, she said.

“You had to know this wasn’t going to be pleasant,” Gallagher told Cooper. “I appreciate you being here.”

In most neighborhoods in Montgomery County, Pepco asks for a homeowner’s permission before trimming or cutting down trees on their property, Pasternak told the gathering. Along Pepco’s transmission corridor in Potomac, however, the utility has evoked easements it purchased in the 1950s to assert its right to cut trees on private property – whether or not the owner agrees.

Goodman, the spokesman for aggrieved Potomac homeowners, told Cooper: “We are thousands of very irate and frustrated customers who want you to know how badly your company has mismanaged its responsibilities by heavy-handed misrepresentations of Pepco’s rights with no respect for the homeowners’ rights.”

One example of Pepco’s high-handedness, Goodman told Cooper, was that its contractors even cut down trees in a county-designated forest conservation area along its Potomac right-of-way. That prompted cries from the audience of “Shame on you, Pepco!”

“We are your customers,” Sam Tucker, a real estate developer who lives in a Potomac neighborhood abutting Pepco’s high-voltage transmission lines, told Cooper. “If any other business had treated its customers the way you have treated the citizens of Montgomery County, then they would be out of business.”

Cooper said after the meeting that she did not know how long the utility would halt cutting along its Potomac right-of-way while reviewing customer complaints and determining “next steps.”

“We are concerned about our customers,” Cooper told homeowners during the meeting. “We will communicate. I will have a follow-up.”