Don’t let tree trimmers onto your property, leader advises upset homeowners

Jan Peter vanRosevelt came home to find his oak and fig trees reduced to stumps by SCE&G tree trimmers.
Jan Peter vanRosevelt came home to find his oak and fig trees reduced to stumps by SCE&G tree trimmers. CLIF LeBLANC

Arts professor Virginia Scotchie is angry that tree timmers hired by SCE&G leveled a tree she planted eight years ago in memory of her murdered brother.

“It was just my way of coming to terms with it,” the University of South Carolina professor said Monday of the shooting death in Asheville of her brother, Tom Scotchie. “I think a lot of people plant trees in memory of people they’ve lost.”

Virginia Scotchie was among about 60 residents of Hollywood Rosehill, Wales Garden and Shandon who gathered under a large shade tree to protest South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.’s tree trimming practices. She called it “tree butchery.”

The chaste tree that reminded her of her brother is now a stump, Scotchie said.

She was among several people who objected to the utility company’s practices during an outdoor protest and walking tour along South Saluda and Tugaloo avenues.

Protesters took turns railing against the tree-trimming company the utility hired, Trees, Inc., whose employees entered their yards without permission, who don’t care about the appearance of their neighborhoods or who damaged their property while clearing trees and tree limbs from power lines.

It was the same fight their neighborhoods had with SCE&G five years ago.

Guy Jones, one of the protest organizers, declared, “We have had enough.” Jones called on his neighbors to refuse to allow tree trimmers onto their properties.

SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said the utility company has the legal authority and responsibility to be sure electricity gets to residents during storms.

The utility trims according to accepted standards with the aim of cutting a “Y” shape in tree tops that keep trees healthy, Boomhower said.

“We’re not trimming anything more than it has to be done to do the job,” he said. “It really comes down to safety and reliability.”

That’s not Jan Peter vanRosevelt’s experience. vanRosevelt said he as lived in his South Saluda home since 1999 and has had trees trimmed before. So when trimmers arrived recently, he left to run errands. He returned to stumps where oak and fig trees had stood.

vanRosevelt doesn’t understand why the trees were cut so drastically. The trimmers, who he said did not speak English well, did not offer much of an explanation.

Boomhower said Monday he could not explain that situation without looking specifically into vanRosevelt’s experience. That could not be done immediately on Monday, the spokesman said.

But Boomhower countered that the results of just one tree limb impeding a power line can cause huge problems. For example, during thunderstorms two weeks ago, a downed tree in the neighborhoods that protested Monday knocked out electricity to 200 customers for almost 24 hours, he said.

The call for property owners to deny access to tree trimmers would delay but not stop the cutting, the spokesman said.

If an owner says, no, the utility will leave and then write the owner a letter outlining the need to keep power line access open. Refusing work crews right of access is rare, he said.

“If we have to ... as a last resort ... is to do the work under law enforcement presence,” Boomhower said. “We do have legal authority to be there.”

Responding to complaints that local tree trimming companies would be more sensitive, the utility spokesman said the use of out-of-state firms has the same result.

“It doesn’t matter whether we use local people. They’re going to be trimming to the same standard. There is not a lot of subjectivity (to how much to cut).”

Among the politicians who attended the protest, Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said he is considering legislation that would mandate trimming every two years instead of the customary five. That, Smith said, should result in less drastic cutting.

He also wants to look into ways to give power companies greater financial incentives to installing underground lines or burying existing ones.

Columbia city staffers have said it costs between $1 million and $2 million per block to convert overhead lines to underground ones.

Despite the apparently unsuccessful efforts to reach a compromise with neighborhoods such as those who protested, Smith told the group, “This is an issue that is solvable.”

He was among a contingent of city and county leaders who in August 2011 said they were disappointed they could not win the compromises they sought with SCE&G.

The agreement they were able to reach came only after a weeks-long, self-imposed moratorium by the utility.

“We weren’t able to move them in a direction that I hoped would take into account a more nuanced approach to cutting trees in an urban area where trees are such a part of the quality of life,” Smith said at the time.

Asked Monday if the law that grants power companies strong legal authority to trim trees has changed since 2011, Smith said, no.