A Fuels Reduction of Alaska worker walks back to his truck after a day of clearing trees and brush from Matanuska Electric Association utility easements in the Eagle Crest neighborhood last week. Some Eagle River residents say they're not happy with how MEA has handled the clearning project.
STAR PHOTO by matt tunseth
When Martin Atrops returned to his Brendlwood subdivision home from a four-day trip with his grandchildren to Denali National Park, he found his trees had been cut down.
Matanuska Electric Association cut down the two mature spruce trees July 28, two days after a utility employee told Atrops the cooperative planned to remove everything planted 10 feet from his transformer box to the street. The worker approached Atrops as he was loading his car minutes before leaving Eagle River for Denali.
When he got back, Atrops saw two stumps and a strip of bare soil where trees and grass had been.
"They were cut off down to the ground just leaving two stumps and that's it," Atrops said.
MEA is in the process of clearing transformers and pedestals throughout Chugiak-Eagle River subdivisions to prevent outages, said utility spokesperson Cheryll Heinze.
"We have to provide safe, reliable electricity, and to do that, we have to have access to fix that whenever it goes out," she said.
The clearing has left several Brendlwood residents astonished and upset with the utility.
"People up and down our street were just up in arms when (MEA) came through here," said Sue Scott, a 19-year Brendlewood resident.
Lack of due process?
Atrops said the loss of his White and Sikta spruce trees each 20 to 30 feet tall was made more disappointing by MEA's short notice of its intensions.
"There really was no due process about notifying us in advance what they intended to do," said Atrops, who has lived in the subdivision for 26 years. "It's sort of like a hit-and-run. You just have no warning."
Scott said MEA gave her the same treatment.
On July 27, she said she was handed a notice saying MEA was clearing the area around her electric box the following day. The utility came five days later, leaving nothing but small pieces of tree trunks behind, she said.
"We didn't even have time to confirm where our easements were," Scott said.
Hanging notices on homeowners' doors prior to clearing is a courtesy provided by MEA, Heinze said. She came up with the idea last year.
"We don't have to do that," Heinze said. "This is something we're trying to do to make them understand."
Heinze said MEA attempts to contact all homeowners prior to clearing, but often residents aren't home and the work is finished before they return. She said she's sorry some homeowners haven't been notified prior to cutting.
"We try on an individual basis every chance we can to try and talk to them," Heinze said. "We do the very best we can."
The utility also places ads about clearcutting on television and in newspapers, though that's not required either, Heinze said. MEA does so as a courtesy, she said.
An ad in a newspaper isn't the same as notifying individual homeowners, Atrops said.
"Clearly that's not the same thing as sending a letter addressed to me at home," he said.
MEA needs to notify individual homeowners in advance to give them adequate time to respond to the notice, Atrops said.
"If you're looking for room to negotiate, you need to know what the survey looks like," he said. "In two days time, there's no time to do that."
Though sympathetic to the neighbors, MEA is responsible for providing safe, reliable electricity, Heinze said.
"We do understand the trauma and the shock, but we have to do it," she said. "It's in our tariff."
No previous presence
Having never seen MEA cutting crews in Brendlwood over the past quarter century, the utility's presence perplexed Atrops.
"If anybody thought there was a problem, I should have heard about it 20 years ago," he said. "It had never been an issue or a problem."
Prior management at MEA is to blame, Heinze said.
Under former General Manger Wayne Carmony, MEA was negligent on clearing electric boxes, Heinze said.
"For at least 15 years, the past general manager did nothing as far as clearing," she said. "That's one reason we've had so many outages."
Current MEA general manger Joe Griffith is making up for that negligence, she said.
"When the new general manager took over, he said, 'We have to clear,'" Heinze said. "So, we're clearing."
Though clearing plants and trees upsets residents, it must be done throughout the summer to keep the lights on during the winter, Heinze said.
"It's hard in the summer to get people to understand. This is how we fix your outages," she said. "You think people scream bloody murder now, you should hear them in the winter when their power goes out."
Eagle Crest subdivision resident Bill Barndt displays one of four birch trees that were cut down along his back yard fence by contractors working for Matanuska Electric Association in Eagle River. Barndt said he wasn't happy about the loss of the trees which were located beneath a power line but recognized MEA's right to cut them down. "I guess they had no choice," he said. "It is what it is."
STAR PHOTO by MATT TUNSETH
'Couldn't see the need'
Scott said her trees posed no safety threat nor did they prevent access to her electric box. The branches could easily be pushed back to gain access to the box, she said.
"They didn't have to cut out a 20-year-old beautiful tree that wasn't in the way," she said.
Atrops had the same feeling about the loss of his two trees.
"We couldn't see the need for it," he said.
Plants such as ferns or flowers that can easily be bent down are OK near electric boxes, Heinze said, but anything with woody roots can create problems. No one would think of planting a lilac bush in front of a fire hydrant, she said, and transformers and pedestals should be treated the same way.
Homeowners should use a general rule of keeping a clear area around transformers that's 10 feet in front, three feet in back and five feet on each side of the box, she said.
Atrops said he recognizes the need for easements. However, MEA needs to realize and appreciate the various uses of that property, he said.
"I do think there needs to be some consideration given to the multiple uses of that area," he said. "It's not just for one use and one use only."
"The property is private property," she said. "It doesn't belong to MEA. They only have a right of way."
MEA operates only within the easement, Heinze said, and every homeowner signed off on their right of way with the cooperative.
"We don't go out of our rights of ways," Heinze said. "People have got to look at their plats."
Heinze said a common misconception homeowners have is that MEA decides where transformers and pedestals are placed. But it's the builder who decides, she said.
"When it's all said and done and gone before Planning and Zoning, then MEA comes out and hooks up the houses," Heinze said.
Trees had value
MEA gave no consideration to the value of the trees it removed, Atrops said.
"I don't think these people knew what they were doing," he said. "In their minds, they were cutting weeds."
But the $5,000 to $10,000 worth of spruce removed by MEA was more than just aesthetically pleasing landscaping for Atrops. The trees acted as a screen from cars' headlights, which he said now shine into his front room. They also served in a safety role, preventing debris from crashing into his house during a wind storm.
"These are not just weeds and not just nuisances," Atrops said.
Many of the neighbors have spent years planting trees and other vegetation to spruce up their homes, Scott said.
"This is a high-end, upscale neighborhood," she said. "People have spent a lot of time and money landscaping and beautifying. I guess they don't get that people have an emotional attachment to their property."
Scott said MEA's narrow-mindedness has her seething.
"Their view is so myopic it's ignorant," she said. "It's their methods that stink."
Roots can cause damage
A tree's roots can cause problems homeowners can't see, Heinze said, such as breaking an underground power line.
Atrops said he's trying to improve MEA's relationship with homeowners, but isn't making much headway.
"You would like to think they would want to do whatever they could to support us in that," he said.
Atrops said he's not interested in suing the co-op for damages, which would be a waste of time and money, he said.
"I'm only looking at trying to make the best out of a bad situation," he said.
Letter to MEA
Scott wrote a letter to Griffith, Operations Manager Tony Zellers and the entire MEA board of directors but has yet to receive a response. But Atrops said Zellers has answered emails, phone calls and stopped by his house to discuss the matter, all of which he appreciates.
Scott said she hasn't gotten the same treatment.
"Their actions and statements say we can do whatever we want whenever we want. Too bad, it's your problem, and that's their attitude," Scott said.
"My question to them is, when do you take responsibility for anything?"
Had the utility issued a letter to subdivision homeowners about the need to improve access to the boxes and safety concerns, residents would have been more understanding, Scott said.
"The backlash they've created is their own doing and it's disgusting," she said. "They've created a mess. As far as I'm concerned, we would fire them and go with another company if we had the choice."
Despite the loss of her trees, Scott is still taking one positive from the situation.
"It's a good lesson in dealing with utility companies," she said. "We've learned how they can operate, so we'll be smarter in the future."
Heinze said the utility is doing the best it can.
"We're just trying every way we can, and we just can't please everybody," she said. "It's a no-win situation sometimes."
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 17, 2011.