Xcel runs into buzz saw over tree plans

OAK PARK HEIGHTS — Mayor Mary McComber saw the irony in Xcel Energy’s plan to clear trees and brush from the utility’s transmission lines in the city.

“It’s ironic that we’re a ‘Tree City’ and there’s nothing we can do,” she said after the city council Tuesday listened to Xcel representatives discuss the planned tree and shrub clearing work.

Xcel Community Relations Manager Collete Jurek and Transmission Supervisor Brad Weidenfeller spent about 30 minutes explaining the utility’s tree clearing plans and answering questions from city officials and residents.

Jurek and Weidenfeller’s appearance at Tuesday’s meeting came at the council’s request after some Oak Park Heights residents received mailings from Xcel about the planned tree clearing work several weeks ago.

Weidenfeller said Xcel’s project comes four years after the company performed a similar project in the city. He added that Xcel’s contractor, Wright Tree Service, plans to start work in the city next week.

“We understand that trees are near and dear to everyone’s hearts. But one of the reasons we do tree clearing is that trees are the number one reason for power outages,” Jurek said.

She added that after a tree falling on a power line caused a 2003 brownout that darkened much of the eastern United States from New York City west to Cleveland, tougher industry guidelines on clearing trees and brush from power lines were instituted.

Jurek and Weidenfeller said they would meet with residents living near Xcel lines to discuss the work and see if a property owner has trees or shrubs in Xcel easements that might be subject to pruning or clearing.

But added that any tree in an Xcel easement capable of encroaching on a line can be removed.

McComber noted that the last time Xcel cleared trees, the contractor left invasive box elder and buckthorn.

“I would like to take the buckthorn out. There’s a lot of buckthorn behind City Hall,” Weidenfeller said. “Buckthorn to Xcel is not a problem. Buckthorn to the city is an invasive species. We wouldn’t pull species at all. We would mow and grind and follow up with a herbicide.”

Several residents at Tuesday’s meeting urged the council to ensure Xcel makes an effort to save mature trees that would not have an impact on the utility’s lines.

“There are beautiful oak trees that are over 100 years old. I don’t see why we need to destroy them if they were there when they built the lines,” said Jackie Patrick.

“I want someone from the city there when you cut down big trees,” said Councilman Mark Swenson.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue. Once it’s (a tree) gone, it’s gone,” McComber said.

Weidenfeller reminded the council that Xcel has easements regarding its power lines and the right to work within those easements.

“We bought our rights. We have the right to monitor our lines,” he said.
Several city officials admitted there is little the council can do to limit Xcel’s work.

Assistant City Attorney Andy Pratt said the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Xcel’s power to remove trees from power line easements was “reasonable.”
City Administrator Eric Johnson said the city cannot control Xcel’s tree clearing through the $40 city permit the utility’s contractor needs to do the work.

The reality, according to Councilman Mike Runk and Johnson, is Xcel can proceed with its tree-clearing project.

“They have the power here,” Runk said.

“At the end of the day, the decision is not the council’s. The decision is Xcel’s,” Johnson added. “Once they leave here tonight, your ability to control the situation is gone.”

Xcel Energy offers property owners a handbook explaining the utility’s tree-clearing guidelines and suggests plants property owners can use in the vicinity of power lines and easements. Call 800-895-4999 or visit xcelenergy.com for more information.