BV Trustees Hear from SDCEA, Tree Advisory Board, and BV Tree Coalition About Tree Removal Plans
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BV Trustees Hear from SDCEA, Tree Advisory Board, and BV Tree Coalition About Tree Removal Plans

Nov 02, 2023

Posted by Carly Winchell | Aug 25, 2023

The Buena Vista Board of Trustees met for a work session at 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, August 22 to gather information regarding Sangre de Cristo Electric Association’s (SDCEA) plan to perform “ground to sky” cutting around their primary lines within the Town of Buena Vista (BV).

SDCEA outlined the reasoning behind their plan while the Tree Advisory Board and BV Tree Coalition advocated for slowing down the process to collect more data and consider alternative options.

SDCEA Chief Operating Officer Gary Kelly has been named interim CEO. Courtesy image.

SDCEA Interim CEO Gary Kelly emphasized the company’s mission to provide reliable energy safely. Kelly said the wildfire mitigation plan is consistent with that mission and that the tree removal would increase reliability by reducing outages.

Kelly explained the standard procedure for the “ground to sky” program. SDCEA would remove all trees and large shrubs along a high-voltage power line within fifteen feet of either side of the line.

Trees on the edge of that fifteen-foot line may be side-cut or removed entirely. Branches will be chipped and hauled to BV Public Works property with large, burnable wood either left for the property owner or brought to BV Public Works property.

Kelly described it as acceptable industry practice to provide a buffer when the wind blows between the swinging line and nearby vegetation.

Kelly described SDCEA’s past policy of minimal trimming, which has now become a problem the company has decided to address with a more proactive approach to increase reliability and reduce the risk of wildfire.

Their plan to approach Buena Vista is to divide it into quadrants to minimize disruption to residents. There are about 18 miles of primary high-voltage lines within Buena Vista proper.

Non-joint use communication poles and lines such as cable and television lines or internet lines, and other low-voltage lines will not be affected.

“There are a lot of poles in Buena Vista that have communication only or low voltage lines,” said Kelly. “A lot of people see a pole, they think every pole is a power pole. It’s not.”

There have been rumors that trees on James Street in Buena Vista would be removed. Kelly explained that SDCEA does not have primary high-voltage lines in that area, and the James Street trees would not be removed.

In response to suggestions to bury the lines, which would be a safer option in terms of wildfire mitigation, Kelly said it would be cost-prohibitive, stating it would cost two to three million dollars per mile.

Trustee Andrew Rice also said that trenching could potentially harm trees. “If there is a tree in an easement, there is no more effective way to kill it than to trench through the root system,” said Rice. The Tree Board and BV Tree Coalition suggested seeking grant funding to help cover the costs.

SDCEA’s plan involves communicating with affected residents through mailers, in person, and by email. The company has not as of yet assessed just how many trees, and specifically which trees, will be targeted within town.

A slide from SDCEA’s wildfire mitigation presentation.

The lack of clear information from SDCEA regarding just how their plan will impact the town was the biggest sticking point for the trustees, the Tree Advisory Board, and BV Tree Coalition.

“Apparently tree removal hasn’t been done in a long time,” said Trustee Swisher. “But I don’t think that going in and doing it en masse is going to be acceptable to the community.”

Kelly objected to the idea this would be a mass tree removal because SDCEA is uncertain just how many trees will be taken. This uncertainty was the primary cause for concern in the room.

“Depending on the area, it will be mass,” replied Swisher. “It will look different.”

Sarah Kuhn spoke on behalf of the Tree Advisory Board, which also has reservations about SDCEA’s plans.

“We do understand that Sangre has a duty to the public and a responsibility to keep us all safe and to provide us with electricity as well,” said Kuhn. “We, as a board, feel that clearing trees fifteen feet on either side of the pole is a little too extreme, and we feel that this action is hasty.”

Kuhn encouraged the trustees to enter a dialogue with SDCEA to reach an amenable agreement for the town.

The tree board also brought Bristlecone Tree Care Owner and Certified Arborist Dave Ludders to speak, who indicated that removing vegetation on either side of poles regardless of species is not usually necessary. He advocated slowing the process down to assess trees species-by-species, line-by-line to ensure that only viable threats are removed.

Liz Morgan spoke for the BV Tree Coalition, which formed only two months ago in response to SDCEA’s plans. “If our tall, old friends and protectors must be taken from us it must be done with care, for a clear purpose, and only when necessary to serve that purpose,” said Morgan.

The BV Tree Coalition had three requests:

Morgan cited Chapter 5, Article II, Section 2.6 of the town’s municipal code as reasoning for the Town’s ability to intercede. This section came from Ordinance No. 01-2023, which has yet to be codified, but was adopted on February 14, 2023. The full language for this ordinance is available in the Trustee Meeting Packet from January 24, 2023. Section 2.6 is located on page 56 of the packet.

It states, “SDCEA shall have the right to trim or cut down such trees and shrubbery and to control the growth of the same by chemical means, mechanical or otherwise, only as may be reasonably necessary to protect its facilities and so long as such steps are undertaken in a manner to minimize damage or interference to trees, shrubbery and other natural features. SDCEA will notify property owners adjacent and adjoining the Town’s property prior to commencement of work.”

Because it has not been codified, this language is not reflected in the Town of Buena Vista Municipal Code that is available online at the time of writing.

The BV Tree coalition’s argument is that SDCEA’s plan is not reasonable, asserting the company has not taken steps to minimize damage or interference to vegetation. SDCEA argued that it is reasonable because it is industry practice and wildfire risk is a real threat. SDCEA’s counsel also emphasized that the plan is not necessarily all or nothing, explaining that the contractor would assess situations as they arose.

Kelly stated that anyone with questions about the mitigation program could contact SDCEA’s office by email to [email protected] or by dialing 844-395-2412.

The full work session can be viewed online here.