Needham residents, selectmen and legislators asked NSTAR representatives to slow down plans to clear hundreds of trees and vegetation from the public right-of-way at a meeting held Tuesday, July 10 at .
The meeting comes a few weeks after similar plans in towns such as Sudbury and Wayland from residents there.
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said NSTAR representatives were open to the idea of coming to talk with Needham residents before crews arrive in town in an attempt to answer questions and address some concerns.
“It’s our obligation to our customers to ensure the most reliable electrical service we can deliver. It’s also our obligation to you to be the very best corporate neighbor we can be,” said Barry Salvucci, NSTAR community relations representative. “The goal here is to work with the citizenry in Needham.”
Why this plan?
Salvucci said NSTAR’s aggressive vegetation management plan is related to the problems large trees and plants have caused with electrical transmission and distribution systems.
During the past year, with and then with the in October, about 74 percent of NSTAR customers were affected by a power outage that could be directly attributed to trees falling on power lines and causing other damage, Salvucci said.
Similar issues have been seen in Washington, D.C. and West Virginia with more recent storms, he added.
Bill Hayes, senior arborist for NSTAR, said the problems go back to the blackout in 2003 that originated in Ohio, when a tree came into contact with a transmission system and resulted in power outages for about 50 million customers throughout the Northeast.
Since 2010, NSTAR Electric has been working to remove “incompatible” vegetation from the right-of-way around the company’s electrical transmission system, which transports high voltage electricity to the area, Hayes said, likening the transmission lines to the human body’s carotid artery. Distribution lines, by comparison, deliver electricity to individual customers.
"Incompatible vegetation" means any growth with a mature height of more than 3 feet in the “wire zone,” located directly around and under the transmission tower. Also incompatible are trees and vegetation with a mature height of more than 15 feet that are located in the “border zone”—an area on either side of the wire zone within the right-of-way (see diagram in the gallery above).
NSTAR manages about 400 miles of high voltage transmission right-of-way, with an average width of 100 feet, Hayes said.
Tree species that are considered “incompatible” include aspen, beech, birch, hemlock, oak, maple and white pine. Even if these trees have not hit the 15-foot limit, they have the capacity to grow that tall at maturity and will be removed as part of the management program, Hayes said.
Currently, NSTAR crews are working in Ashland and plan to move northeast through Southborough and Framingham toward Needham, arriving in about a month, Hayes said.
But local officials have asked the company to slow down plans and to consider working more closely with individual homeowners before removing trees that are literally in residents’ backyards.
In late June, NSTAR representatives left flyers on the doors of residents whose properties abut or are within the right-of-way that would be affected by the tree clearing.
But selectmen suggested NSTAR do more to communicate with residents.
Selectman John Bulian said he would like to see the company tell homeowners the exact dates they will be doing work in the area so that individuals could have their specific concerns addressed before crews take action that the property owners will then "have to live with for the rest of their lives.”
“That’s what I ask, that there be notification and that the neighbors be made aware and have the opportunity to be present [during the work],” Bulian said.
State Representative Denise Garlick, a Needham resident, spoke at length about issues she had with NSTAR’s vegetation management plan, saying she did not want to see what had recently occurred in , and to occur in Needham.
In many cases, she said, the area being cleared is in residents’ backyards, and the vegetation being removed helps provide a buffer between homes and the MBTA Commuter Rail tracks.
“When we envision those trees being gone, that is a different quality and culture of Needham than I have ever imagined,” Garlick said. “To think of the loss of all of this is very overwhelming.”
Garlick said that as a legislator she had not received any notification of NSTAR’s plans and felt communication moving forward would be “incredibly helpful.”
She noted that many Needham residents are away on summer vacations and, without better communication, might return to find a flyer on their door—after all the trees in the right-of-way had been removed as part of the project.
Garlick said she also did not understand why the project was so aggressive and focused on the transmission lines when many of Needham’s power outages appeared to have been caused by trees and branches falling on distribution lines during the recent storms.
“I keep thinking we’re trying to shoot a mosquito with a cannon here,” Garlick said, also referring to the plan as a “scorched earth” policy.
Respecting the town culture
State Senator Richard Ross also felt it was important for NSTAR to work with residents before removing trees.
Needham has retained its rural character, he said, thanks in part to the local vegetation that has been carefully maintained by the community.
“We want to make sure that the power company has the same kind of vision,” Ross said.
Fairfield Street resident Mark McDonough said he felt NSTAR had not done a good job of maintaining the area since taking control of the transmission lines and that the company was now trying to make up for that “absence of maintenance” by clear-cutting.
South Street resident John Negoshian said he had called the company several times to find out exactly when trees would be cut in his neighborhood but had not heard specifics.
“You’re talking about people’s properties,” he said. “I personally would like to know every single thing that’s coming down on my property and what the agenda is.”
Hayes said NSTAR has responded to concerns by offering mitigation options in some cases—a new approach that has not been done in the past.
Mitigation may include: grinding stumps in landscaped areas; adding loam, seed or grading in areas where grass or landscaping has been disturbed; and planting low-growing trees or bushes to replace vegetation in the border zone, Hayes said.
All requests for mitigation should be submitted to Anne Marie Walsh at email@example.com or 617-369-6356.