A leader of the Potomac homeowners who have been protesting and blocking Pepco’s cutting of trees conceded Thursday that their cause was lost—at least for now.
“It’s over,” said Howard Siemers as Pepco contractors, guarded by armed off-duty Montgomery County police officers, resumed cutting in the Fallsreach neighborhood where activists have battled the utility for months to save trees on or near their properties.
Since December, Siemers and others who live near Pepco transmission lines have used a simple tactic to stop the utility from felling their trees; when Pepco tree-cutting contractors arrived to remove a tree protestors stood beneath it, halting the work. By hiring off-duty law enforcement officers wearing badges and guns to keep protesters out of its work zones Thursday, Pepco finally shut the protesters down, Siemers said.
Fellow protester Donn Layne, a member of the Fallsreach homeowners association board, agreed. “If they come every day equipped the way they are now, what am I going to be able to do against all those police officers?” he said.
One protester rushed into the tree-cutters’ work zone Thursday morning trying to save trees next to her townhome. But a man who would identify himself only as a private security contractor for Pepco physically removed her as she screamed for him to get his hands off of her, witnesses said.
Despite the setback for the Fallsreach activists, Bethesda arborist Ann Gallagher said the movement that began in Fallsreach will not die with the trees removed there Thursday. Tree-lovers from neighborhoods around Montgomery County will help Potomac homeowners take the fight to the state level, she said.
“This small group may have hit its limits, but it is bigger than this now,” she said. “The array of opponents to this kind of behavior by Pepco has grown beyond this small movement.”
A Pepco spokesman, who was in Fallsreach observing the tree-cutting, said that the utility not only has the legal right to remove limbs and trees threatening its power lines, it has a mandate from state regulators to do so. “Nothing has changed,” Sean Kelly said. “We are following through with what we are mandated to do.”
Pepco has been under pressure to improve its reliability in recent years after series of storms knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of its customers. In 2011, Maryland’s Public Service Commission, 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 ranches can grow to different types of power lines.
In most neighborhoods, Pepco asks for a homeowner’s permission before trimming or cutting down trees on their property. 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 consents. When Pepco purchased the easements, most of the subdivisions and homes that now exist on the land had not been built.
Many homeowners whose property abuts Pepco’s transmission lines say that they had no idea when they bought their homes that Pepco had a pre-existing legal right to come up to 75 feet into their yards to trim or cut down trees that the utility, in its sole discretion, deems dangerous to electric lines supplying power to tens of thousands of Pepco customers.
County Executive Ike Leggett tried several weeks ago to broker a compromise between Pepco and aggrieved homeowners. Pepco temporarily halted its cutting in Potomac, then announced that it would resume. A lawyer for the utility sent a “cease and desist” letter to the Fallsreach homeowners association warning that protesters who interfered could be arrested or sued civilly.
On Thursday, a line of Montgomery County police cars was parked near the two sites where Pepco began cutting trees. Off-duty officers from Montgomery County Police and other agencies, some wearing side-arms, patrolled Pepco’s work sites. The officers wore street clothes, but displayed their badges on chains around their necks. “The security is here for the safety of everyone,” Pepco’s Kelly said.
One of the first sites Pepco began cutting Thursday was next to the townhouses where three key tree activists live. The other site was in the yard where the protesters had first managed, several months ago, to halt Pepco crews by standing under trees. Siemers said the choice of those sites was vindictive. “It’s pure spite,” he said.
Gallagher, the arborist, said the show of force was excessive. As she watched trees come down, she sent out a sarcastic tweet, saying: “#Pepco courageously facing down retirees with police, over #Trees.”