July-August 2015 | Featured Article

Potomac Homeowners Fighting Pepco Over Tree Cutting

After several terrible storms and repeated outages, Pepco began cutting down trees more aggressively than ever before. A group of Potomac homeowners thinks the utility has gone too far - and last year, they started fighting back.

SIHAM AINANE, AN IVY LEAGUE-EDUCATED suburban mom, drives through the curving, tree-lined streets of her Potomac neighborhood most mornings, looking to see if the men she views as invaders are back. Howard Siemers, one of her closest neighbors in the Fallsreach subdivision, is on patrol, too.

The former Marriott finance executive scans the horizon with binoculars. He does this so often that his wife has taken to calling him Paul Revere.

A mile away in the Inverness Forest subdivision, Fred Goodman is at his backyard lookout post before 7 a.m. The small-business owner stares at a phalanx of orange and white bucket trucks—a makeshift industrial parking lot that utility giant Pepco established near several once-quiet, forested neighborhoods. Goodman watches as an army of Pepco tree-cutting contractors arrive for work. They start their truck engines with a roar that fills him with dread. Once Goodman sees the direction the tree-cutters are heading, he calls Siemers and the day’s cellphone relay begins.

“Get ready,” neighbor tells neighbor. “They are coming your way.”

For more than a year, homeowners in at least eight Potomac neighborhoods have engaged in a struggle to try to stop Pepco from cutting down trees on their private property.

Workers for tree-cutting contractor Asplundh have grown accustomed to protests in Potomac. This worker cuts branches from a Bradford pear at an entrance to Inverness Forest. About 15 homeowners gathered nearby to try to save the tree. Photo by April Witt.

These neighborhoods abut a lengthy Pepco right of way with power lines that provide electricity to tens of thousands of customers, including homes, businesses, hospitals, police stations, firehouses and critical government facilities. Pepco representatives say the utility has not only the legal right, but the clear mandate, to trim or cut down trees it deems potentially hazardous to its lines. To that end, Pepco has invoked a series of easements that it purchased in the 1950s, when these Potomac neighborhoods were farmlands, not subdivisions. The existence of these easements surprised many homeowners, because they don’t appear on their subdivision plots or individual deeds—and their title insurers failed to find them during routine searches. Pepco maintains that the easements, which are legally recorded in older county land records, allow the utility to send bucket trucks and chain saws into people’s gardens and cut down trees, even against homeowners’ will. For every tree the utility cuts down, homeowners are promised a $200 coupon to use for a replacement plant.

Stunned Potomac residents along the right of way have returned from work or vacation to find that Pepco contractors have cut down most of the trees in their yard. Some homeowners defy Pepco, standing under their own trees and their neighbors’ trees to prevent the utility’s contractors from cutting them down. More than once, Montgomery County police officers have been called to referee the fray.

Homeowners who oppose Pepco argue that the utility is deforesting Montgomery County in the name of reliable electric power. What is at stake, they say, is not just environmental devastation, but their property values, their faith in government to work on behalf of its citizens, and their sense of power to protect their homes. As trees topple in Potomac, they take with them a suburban way of life in which the parents of small children hang swings from ancient oaks—and expect the trees will still be standing when grandchildren someday come to play.

“This is a heck of a way to live after four decades in Potomac,” says Goodman, an Air Force veteran who owns a company that helps equip public libraries. “This is the first time in my entire life that I have felt like I was not in control of my own property.”

ON SATURDAY MORNINGS, it’s common to find Potomac homeowners walking their dogs on Pepco’s right of way. It is about 80 yards wide and looks like a poorly mowed field. Rows of rusting steel towers and wooden poles carry parallel power lines beyond the horizon in either direction. Citing security concerns, Pepco declined to disclose some details of the right of way. Viewed from above via Google Earth, the high-voltage transmission lines snaking through Potomac appear to extend more than 10 miles from a utility facility in Rockville to another in Germantown. Pepco’s transmission corridor looks like a long dry river, hundreds of acres of rare open ground in a dense suburban landscape.

Fred and Stephanie Goodman have taken to guarding their Potomac home and posting “no trespassing” signs to try to keep tree-cutters from coming into their backyard. Photo by April Witt.

Pepco and its Potomac neighbors coexisted more or less peacefully for decades until power outages prompted demands for reform. Maryland’s Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates utilities, fined Pepco $1 million for bad performance in 2011 and the Business Insider website named Pepco the most hated company in America.

The Maryland Electricity Reliability Act, which was sponsored by Montgomery County legislators, required regulators to set new performance standards and penalties for utilities that failed to meet them. The PSC formed a working group, including representatives from utilities and jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, to come up with a new mandate to improve power companies’ performance by, among other things, better “vegetation management.”

Piles of logs—the remains of trees that have been cut—have become a common sight in Potomac. Photo by April Witt

The resulting standards—known as RM 43—dictate how close tree branches can grow to different types of power lines. According to Pepco, if 25 percent or more of a tree’s crown needs to be removed in order to keep all limbs the required distances from power lines, then a certified arborist for the utility determines if they will cut the tree down instead of prune. Because the new guidelines were so aggressive, Montgomery County officials initially said that the county might come up with different vegetation management rules within its borders. Pepco objected and prevailed, according to public records and interviews. When RM 43 went into effect in May 2012, it mandated that no jurisdiction in the state could override its directives. The following month, the June 2012 derecho ravaged the region and left 483,639 Pepco customers without power, some for days. Pressure on Pepco to perform mounted. Trees came down.