When Winter Park’s coveted tree canopy started losing branches in a hurry, residents wondered why their trees were hit with the ugly stick. At the City Commission meeting on Monday, they found out.
Telling a gruesome tale of how he nearly lost a leg and was badly burned by touching a 7,200 volt power line as a child, city engineer Don Marcotte opened a talk about safety versus aesthetics in regards to trees and power lines.
While climbing a tree he accidentally touched a high voltage line that was within arm’s reach. The resulting brush with death and eight surgeries left him with a painful reminder of the danger of tree branches being too close to power lines.
That safety issue led city staff to make a presentation created by Florida Power & Light Company to help the Commission and residents to understand why it was suddenly cutting trees so that their trunks and branches forked around power lines in a deep V shape.
The reason, Marcotte said, was to keep power lines away from curious hands.
“I’m certainly glad to see trees that are not near power lines, of course,” he said.
Recent changes to regulations for tree branch radius around nearby power lines increased Winter Park’s allowable distance from 3 1/2 feet to 4 feet, then to 10 feet. Rather than trimming the tops of trees to keep them away from lines, the city had been cutting trees using “directional” trimming, which causes the trees to fork around and away from power lines, leaving a V-shaped gap in the middle of the canopy. Only in the last few weeks had the city actually seen the larger cuts taking place.
“Aesthetics are extremely important, but safety comes first,” City Manager Randy Knight said. “Trees and power lines do not mix.”
During her presentation, Assistant City Manager Michelle del Valle said that directional trimming is also healthier for the trees, which could ultimately help preserve the canopy.
Commissioner Steven Leary said that if the trees’ health was in jeopardy and there was a safety issue, then the cuts should be made, citing that only six percent of trees in the city would be subject to the cuts.
“I don’t like the looks of those cuts any more than anybody else does,” Leary said. “But they sound like they’re necessary.”
Resident and philanthropist Marc Hagle said that the city’s existing trimming policy had been in place long enough to see if it would have negative consequences.
“I thought the presentation was interesting, but it was presented by Florida Power and Light,” Hagle said. “We don’t need to do anything differently than we’d been doing. We’ve had a tree-trimming policy from 1983 to 2007 of 4 feet.”
Commissioner Carolyn Cooper, agreed, saying that the city should go back to more-traditional cuts that preserve the aesthetics of the trees.
“If you’re going to continue to cut, then please stay with the cuts we’ve been using for 20 years,” Cooper said. “I understand [directional cutting], but I also understand property values.”
Leary said that if trees start decaying and dying early due to improper trimming, that’ll also hurt property values, and take longer to recover from.
“Nobody’s saying ‘God this is gorgeous’, but at the same time, nobody wants trees falling on cars, falling on kids, taking out power lines and spending more to clean it up,” Leary said. “We’ve got to do what’s right, not what’s pretty.”