True Test of KUB’s Tree Panel Still to Come

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Two weeks ago, the KUB Tree Trim Policy Review Panel—a name designed seemingly to both tie your tongue and dull your mind—delivered its long-awaited report to a City Council committee with not a small amount of fanfare and self-congratulation. The report itself (available online at kub.org) contained 73 recommendations for improving the utility’s pruning techniques, which have come under increasing criticism over the past few years.

Yet while the work of the 16-member panel is now complete, critics of KUB say the real fight is just beginning. “Are they going to make these changes or not?” asks Larry Silverstein, a lawyer who served on the panel and someone who’s been working on this issue since April 2006, when his next-door neighbor’s tree was “butchered.” Since then he’s been fighting to correct an attitude and philosophy that he says seeks “to cut as much as possible and remove as much as we can, regardless.”

As the panel has met over the past seven months, stories of mangled trees have continued to trickle in. In late June, resident Jim McDonough wrote this in an e-mail to the panel, “The trimming that is being done now is much more severe than I ever remember. It seems heartless, indiscriminate, and harsh. It negatively affects the aesthetics of our city, a city that is reinventing itself as a beautiful and lush place, a place where people want to visit or live, and K.U.B. is causing harm to that effort.” McDonough pointed to pruning at the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, in East Knoxville, as especially troubling, “To think that this occurred at a botanical garden and arboretum is inconceivable.”

Others have weighed in, too, including former Mayor Victor Ashe, who had his own issues with work KUB sought to do on his property. Ashe says he was ultimately able to resolve those issues with KUB because he knew the right people to call, but he worries for people who don’t have his experience navigating local government.

The issue of tree trimming—a misnomer, according to University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture extension agent David Vandergriff, who says shrubs and dogs are trimmed but trees are pruned—has been gaining more attention in the past few years. Silverstein and others say this is because KUB has drastically changed its policy, leaving more trees more visibly altered than before. “They’ve been cutting trees forever here. Up until four or five years ago there was never any problem,” Silverstein declares.

There’s some truth to this. KUB Chief Operating Officer Bill Elmore says in the past five years the utility has been more consistently enforcing the policy it already had in place. “The standards, for the most part, are identical to what we’ve always had,” Elmore says. “Enforcement, or the consistency in achieving the standards, I’ll admit, has changed.” In the past, Elmore says KUB was less consistent in attaining its needed clearances around power lines, resulting in more outages and the need for vegetation crews to return to places they’d failed to fully and properly prune, a procedure known as “hot-spotting.” So in a move to improve service and act more cost effectively, it began applying its standards more consistently.

But as enforcement became more consistent, complaints increased, so much so that in 2007 the City Council passed a resolution asking KUB to be more conservative in its pruning practices. Two and a half years later, in December 2009, Councilman Rob Frost asked again, this time sponsoring a resolution to create the tree panel that just concluded its work. This committee was meant to serve as a means of addressing the various crimes homeowners feel KUB’s committed against their prized Maples, and to determine ways KUB might improve both its policy and its communication with residents.

Out of the 73 recommendations, the most pressing concern—at least according to Ashe, Frost, and Silverstein—is the lack of a process for resolving disputes with the utility. But Silverstein adds to that the use of ground-to-sky pruning, in which all the limbs on one side of a tree are cut off, and the outright removal of small diameter trees.

On the panel’s recommendation that KUB create a better process for resolving disputes between the utility and its customers, Elmore agrees this was the biggest issue. “There’s no doubt that we will end up with a better-defined process than we had,” Elmore says, “and the customer advocate is one of those recommendations that the panel felt very strongly about, and I think it has a lot of positive aspects. And it’s certainly being looked at very seriously and will be considered as seriously, if not more seriously, than most recommendations.”

On ground-to-sky pruning, the pruning technique people tend to notice most as they drive around town, the panel recommended that branches that fall outside the 10 foot cutting zone and are healthy be allowed to stay. “In those cases, you have some fairly strong feeling that those limbs are not a problem and are not going to become a problem, and it’s okay to leave it,” Elmore says. So while not ending this practice, Elmore does think there’s some middle ground that can be worked towards.

And finally, with regards to the small diameter trees—a recommendation Silverstein proposed but the tree panel left out of its majority report—KUB sounds unlikely to budge. Elmore says with the small diameter trees, defined as being six inches or less, KUB removes only those grown in unmaintained areas. He says the panel agreed it’s better to remove them early than allow them to grow into the lines and then be forced to prune them in the way people find so distasteful. Vandergriff says more than 90 percent of these trees are invasives brought planted through bird droppings, and so should be removed anyway. “These are extremely poor quality trees,” Vandergriff says, offering that in his professional opinion, it would be irresponsible of KUB not to remove them.

Elmore says KUB is now giving “extensive evaluation” to all 73 recommendation in the majority and also those in the two minority reports so that it can make its own recommendations to the board at its October 21 meeting. From there, the board wants to hold four public hearings on the issue, delivering its decision at its December meeting. Many think whatever KUB management recommends will be rubber-stamped by the board, but Silverstein says its vital that people voice their opinions in the coming weeks and months.

“We’re really at a crossroads now, and if we’re ever going to get these policies changed, now’s the time’s do it,” Silverstein says. People “have to contact their KUB board members, they have to contact their City Council members and urge them to make these changes. And if they don’t make these changes, then we’ll see what else we can do, whether through ordinances or charter amendments.

“I mean, KUB operates under the city charter. The city can change the charter to take away some of their authority. They can take away all of their authority.”

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