Power Company Pruning — Part II

September 26, 2013 | By | Comments (23)
Crepe murder

No, these aren’t my crepe myrtles. They are my neighbor’s, after the power company pruning crew came through. This looks awful. Photo: Steve Bender

Well, it’s been an eventful couple of days since I returned from vacation to find my sugar maple and crepe myrtle butchered by the power company. Grumpy met yesterday with John Morris, a certified arborist and registered forester with Alabama Power, to see if we could come to a mutually satisfactory solution.

I don’t think the power company meets very often with an angry homeowner who is both a professional horticulturist trained in tree care as well as someone who has been writing about proper pruning practices for Southern Living for 30 years. It was clear I knew much more about pruning trees than the guy the power company hired to cut mine. I stated my case forcefully, but also calmly and without rancor. I told Mr. Morris that the hack job created a bigger hazard, not a lesser one, and that a certified arborist would NEVER prune trees in such a way that not only ruins their appearance, but makes them more likely to grow into the power lines later on.

Even though I had been urged to sue by outraged readers all over the country, going to court never entered my mind. What I wanted was a solution that compensated me for my maimed sugar maple, assured that tree limbs in my yard would never again be an issue, and let the power company know they can’t cut trees according to an arbitrary standard without first consulting with the homeowner.

The Deal

Maple murder

If left standing, this maimed maple would have created a much greater hazard than before. Photo: Steve Bender

Obviously, there was no way to save my poor sugar maple. If left, it would quickly shoot out a thicket of long, weak, spindly branches on the denuded side that would become a line hazard. So last night, the power company and I came to an agreement. I am legally bound not to reveal the terms, but suffice it to say they are to my satisfaction.

Avoiding A Repeat
Debacles like this one need never happen. In most cases, trees can be pruned to remove the potential hazard without maiming them. Beauty and reliable power are NOT mutually exclusive. And there are some very simple things both homeowners and power companies can do better, so that each side is happy.

What Homeowners Can Do Better
Research your local power company’s guidelines for how close to poles and lines you can plant trees before you plant. You can usually find this info online. For folks in Alabama, Alabama Power offers a very good planting guide called “Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place.”

Don’t plant tall-growing trees directly under the lines. (Find out their mature heights before you buy.) Don’t plant trees and shrubs next to power poles. (If you restrict access to the pole, the offending plant will be cut. That’s a fact.) And don’t plant garbage trees like ‘Bradford’ pear that break in two every time a butterfly sneezes.

What Power Companies Can Do Better
Communicate with homeowners! Treat them like human beings with rights! Don’t act like an all-powerful dictator who can slash and burn with impunity. Let people know what you plan to do and invite their feedback. Nobody wants their lights to go off. And nobody wants to come home to a yard filled with trees carved into doughnuts, toothbrushes, tuning forks, and cinder blocks either.

More specifically:

1. Give homeowners at least two weeks’ warning of what you plan to do and when. In my case, the first notice I got was a tag left on my front door the afternoon before we were to leave for a week’s vacation in Paris. The tag was not from Alabama Power, but from a company I’d never heard of, with a hand-written note: “Your trees need pruning. I can suggest replacements.” Judy and I had the same reaction. We thought the tag came from some guy with a chainsaw and pickup truck trying to scare up business. In any case, there was no chance to contact Alabama Power prior to the pruning. Homeowners have a right to be there when pruning is done.

2. Do a better job of letting your customers know what the current requirements are. When I planted the sugar maple 20 years ago, I purposely planted it at the recommended distance from the power lines and pruned any branch that strayed towards a line (which was always the lowest line on the pole — the cable line — not the actual power lines that are way up at the top). Yet during my meeting with Mr. Morris, he asked if I knew that the power company had recently updated its required distance from power lines. Of course not! How could I? And if I didn’t know about the update, you can bet your sweet granny’s choppers nobody else in the neighborhood did.

3. Make sure the tree pruning contractors you hire are qualified to prune properly. If you hire them, you’re responsible. Do I think the guys who pruned my trees had any more than rudimentary training? Nope. In fact, I bet most pruning contractors have just one guy in the office with a license that employees are allowed to use. Yeah, it is cheaper that way. But poor pruning can’t be corrected in a day…or a month…or a year.

4. Don’t try to intimidate homeowners by saying, “If you don’t let us cut your trees, our costs will rise, and so will your rates.” This is one load of manure Grumpy won’t buy. Unlike other companies, utilities are monopolies that are guaranteed by law to make a profit every year. According to a story on Al.com, Alabama Power’s annual return on equity is between 13 and 14.5%, compared to the national power company average of 10%. Lowering it to 10% would save its customers $287 million a year. I bet you could hire lots of trained arborists with that.


  1. Steve Bender


    This kind of behavior is indefensible, but I see it all the time. There is absolutely no reason to install a power box in a conspicuous place that is going to devalue your home. The power company just doesn’t care and purposely sneaks in when you’re not looking. If you want, email me a photo and maybe I can post it on GG.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm
  2. Lisa Roush

    I am sorry about your loss trees.

    I have a new scar in my mind and I am angry plus I drive and see EACH transformer boxes anywhere since September 24, 2013 when the power company installed the transformer box on my property within 25 feet to my house that is too close while I was not home. I got home and was shocked. They left ruined my grass plus oil on grass and it dead. They didn’t replace a new grass. They never come to talk, discuss and interact with me about it. I talked to a lawyer. No lawyers can not fight with the power company because the power company has powerful rights and have a lot of money.

    The power company is taking care of their electricity, has stronger equipment and powerful rights more than owners rights and their properties. They don’t care the owners’ feeling, angry or complaints. They often shut and doesn’t listen to them. They never response the owners calls or file compliant or emails. Now I am struck with the box. If the owner destroy the box, and the owner could be in jail and get press charges or fines. The owners have no rights or powerful. Sad. I learned one of the owner posted the article that three years ago, the power company left notes on owner and neighbors about install the transformer box AND they didn’t tell owner and neighbors about where to install. The owner was not home. They installed the transformer box in owner’s front house in middle, not left or right. Between front house, walk path toward to the box on sidewalk. Sad.

    I made many calls with the power company, state public utilities, mayor, news, lawyers, etc. no one can help me. I am looking for someone to set up a new law that power company must talk, discuss and interact with the owners and have sign name like agreement before the power company starts to act. They need “care” with the owners.

    The power company is WRONG!

    I wonder all workers of the power company have transformer boxes on their property or cut the trees? I don’t think so.

    October 6, 2013 at 9:26 am
  3. Steve Bender

    Booyah! Matthew, you are a hero! Everyone should follow your example.

    October 3, 2013 at 1:45 pm
  4. Matthew Smith

    I just completed a similar ordeal in Charleston with SCE&G. After butchering an aged grand oak (53″ diameter) in our yard, I refused to let the crew trim our other oak. I got the usual pep talk, but refused them until I consulted an arborist. Unknown to them, I actually performed trimming and pruning for over 10 years through high school and college with expert tutelage. SCE&G personnel were rude and terse. Many would not provide their names when asked. I received a letter threatening me with cut-off unless I complied. Notifying then of written complaint filed with the SC Office of Regulatory Staff and with the Public Service Commission. After lots of huffing, puffing, and threatening, they returned today and trimmed the tree tastefully and professionally. They were not happy about it.

    October 2, 2013 at 7:47 pm
  5. Steve Bender


    Go to your home center and get a product called Ropel. It makes things tastes very bitter to rodents. Try applying it to your lights, avoiding the plug ends.

    October 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm
  6. Ladonna

    It’s actually very difficult in this full of activity life to listen news on TV,
    so I simply use web for that reason, and get the latest

    October 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm
  7. Margaret Peterson

    I know your feeling about squirrels so other than mayhem perhaps you can help me. I had a new set of clear lights put in the tree that is over my patio. They chewed off the lights, one at a time leaving them on the patio. I am now trying rope lights. Can they be coated with something to deter the chewing?

    October 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm
  8. Steve Bender

    Thanks, everybody, for all the comments! IMHO, power companies prey on the ignorance of homeowners and often insist they have to right to do what they do not. They rely on people backing down. If you think you’re right, put up a fight! And to Jim’s comment, I would just say that my neighbor, who is not a public figure, did not have his tree cut even though it’s bigger and closer to the lines than mine was. Why? He was at home. I was not.

    October 1, 2013 at 11:05 am
  9. Colin McKnight

    We see this kind of tree butchering all the time up here in the north. My block gets a haircut roughly every three years. and roughly, it is. While I can understand the idea of pruning a sugar maple, I just don’t get the chop job done on your neighbor’s crepe myrtles Steve. That is one bad pruning job. Do crepe myrtles even get tall enough to reach the power lines? What kind of hazard can they present if their limbs are all below the wires?
    I know that my answer to the problem is that the power lines should be buried, but our utility, National Greed, claims it’s too expensive. But at some point the constant expense of repairing ice damaged wires, and pruning trees has got to exceed the cost of putting the lines under the sod.

    September 30, 2013 at 3:59 pm
  10. Jim

    If you weren’t a public figure I wonder if they would have been quite so accomodating.

    September 30, 2013 at 1:54 pm
  11. Barbara Dark

    I went through this same thing with the ash tree in my front yard…they totally cut it in half..removing one entire side of the tree which was not necessary at all..Imagine my anger when I came home..I made several phone calls…to the power company ,who directed me to the company they hired to trim the trees….long story short..what was left of the tree in my front yard was cut down..the stump ground out…black dirt spread and grass seed sowed..a new japanese lilac planted on opisite side of my yard with no cost to me…However…I have to shade now to block the sun from the front of my house..which in the summer time makes my A/C work harder since the front faces south…I do believe the power company or who ever they hire in this area will now take the time to notify people ahead of time and give them a chance to hire their own tree trimmers…and NEVER trim a tree when the owner is not home.

    September 29, 2013 at 8:42 am
  12. home, garden, life

    Glad it worked out. Sorry that you will not tap for sap this spring…

    September 27, 2013 at 11:44 am
  13. Carmen

    Our local Arboretum has a wonderful Powerline Tree display that more people should come by and see before planting. Several species are in the display at varying distances from the powerlines. All are tagged with common and latin names. Want to know what and what not to plant? Come by our arboretum and we’ll show our residents!

    September 26, 2013 at 10:01 pm
  14. Sandy Lusk

    EPB of Chattanooga came through our area last year and were very respectful. They had an arborist who was an EPB employee not a contractor. We have an old hemlock – our arborist told us over 100 years old – and is a massive tree. Over the last decade, we’ve done many things to preserve and insure its health. It has been treated to prevent the hemlock wooly adelgid. We also had it collared so that high winds don’t split the tree apart. We showed him all we did and he said it wasn’t going to bother the power lines. He needed to trim part of my neighbors oak and that turned out fine. Her branches were in between the power and telephone lines. They trimmed a minimal amount and didn’t worry about the telephone ones. It isn’t there problem.
    I think it helps when the power company sends out a true arborist. He loves trees just like we do. The Eastern Hemlock has enough problems, we need to do whatever we can to preserve them.

    September 26, 2013 at 4:14 pm
  15. Carol Reese

    Great article, Steve! I would have loved to witness the conversation when the power company official realized you knew a heck of a lot more than he did!

    September 26, 2013 at 1:52 pm
  16. Jean

    In my town on one of the main streets there is a huge pecan tree in someone’s yard. The tree was planted too close to the road and certainly under power lines. The tree trimming company cuts a perfect V in the center of that tree every year. I am surprised the tree has survived with this type pruning as it looks like it might just fall apart. Maybe one day it will.
    Sorry about your tree. Glad the power company saw their mistake and will try to remedy it. Don’t mess with the GG!

    September 26, 2013 at 1:42 pm
  17. Shirley Hunt

    Too bad the settlement was confidential as you would think that a public utility couldn’t tack on that stipulation. It is of course to their benefit so as not to provide any reference for less knowledgeable and/or public homeowners who have or will seek recourse. Glad you were satisfied.

    September 26, 2013 at 1:14 pm
  18. Libby Prejean

    Entergy Louisiana contractor unnecessarily totally butchered our 20 year old oak tree in early 2012. It was the only tree on the block they touched. They literally cut down the middle. When I called Entergy, all I got was “too bad, so sad. Trees need to be trimmed.” It was like they were trying to get us to cut down the tree. It’s been in shock ever since.

    September 26, 2013 at 12:57 pm
  19. Kathy

    It breaks my heart when these hack-jobs arbitrarily cut trees into toothbrushes – it’s like they took hedge trimmers and did the ‘bushes’. Seems like it would be more economical and aesthetically pleasing to just cut down offenders under the lines, but always with the homeowner’s input. Nine out of ten times they overstep their bounds and do way more than is needed. And an arborist should definitely be on site to supervise or consult. Period.

    September 26, 2013 at 12:18 pm
  20. Wendi Adams

    Go git ’em Grumpy~!!! When you are finished straightening out Alabama Power and Light, I need you to come down to NOLA and fix Entergy!!!!!

    September 26, 2013 at 11:24 am
  21. Dolly Sarrio

    I am so sorry for you loss. I am glad that maybe just maybe you have given them something to think about. All over the country we see this tree abuse and I hope you indeed did make a difference. They just don’t realize the years of growth and habit of trees. I do understand that the public also is at fault for planting trees that will grow too tall around power lines. I sure hope you indeed were satisfied with the outcome and proud of you grumpy!

    September 26, 2013 at 10:40 am
  22. Suzanne Bachorik Wendland

    JCP&L the power company of NJ did something even more despicable! My parents live in a retirement community, have lived there since 1980. The day after Christmas a few yrs back the power company came thru the “easement” behind my parents home & wiped out every tree within 20 feet of the easement. No one who was effected was given a notice of what was to happen either. They destroyed ALL of the trees that my father planted when he first moved there (my father passed away 2000). Had he been alive to witness the destruction, it would have given him a heart attack! The power company claimed they needed emergency access to a street, which in my opinion should have been something every resident effected by this mess had knowledge of years ago. They butchered well established trees throughout the entire area with no regard to the wildlife or beauty. Not only were trees destroyed on the easement but every tree they deemed to be in the way (even if it was on private property) was also destroyed. What they left behind was an ugly scar. They should be ashamed of themselves, but they don’t give a hoot about anyone but themselves! Calls to the local government and the Pinelands commission didn’t even help…it all comes down to $$$.

    September 26, 2013 at 10:35 am
  23. Carol McDonald Henry

    You advice to homeowners is right on but the Power Co is a lost cause. I am on a tree commission for a city with historic 150+ year old live oaks and have talked with APC many times. They promise the world but their contractors are just butchers. When the street trees become really unsightly and/or dangerous we often have to remove and replace. We deal with many very upset and irate homeowners and community members.

    September 26, 2013 at 10:29 am

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