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Residents, arborist criticize PSEG LI tree trimming

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For years, the two trees in front of Shelia Jasper’s Baldwin Harbor home had branches filled with leaves, just like many others on the community’s tree-lined streets. But now, Jasper said, they look more like “the trees depicted in a haunted house movie” after PSEG Long Island cut the branches that were near utility wires.

The trees are now shorter, and some of the branches are bare. In one case on Wolfson Drive, where Jasper lives, leaves have turned brown.

In recent weeks, PSEG LI has trimmed several trees in Baldwin to prevent limbs from falling on power lines and causing outages. Elizabeth Flagler, a spokeswoman for the utility, wrote in an email that the work has reduced tree-related outages in town by 72 percent on circuits near which trees were trimmed.

Baldwinites like Jasper, however, say the workers have trimmed too much of the trees, not only reducing the aesthetic appeal they once added to the community, but also jeopardizing the trees’ health.

Residents are not alone in that belief. Nina Bassuk, program leader of Cornell University’s Urban Horticulture Institute at the School of Integrative Plant Science, said after viewing photos of the trees that the work did not appear to follow guidelines set by the American National Standards Institute. (PSEG LI’s website claims it adheres to those standards.) Bassuk said she was concerned that too much foliage was cut off — no more than 25 percent of foliage should be trimmed at once, she said — and that the trees may “respond in a way that is hazardous.”

“Next year, when the trees will start to grow back, there will be a tremendous amount of small branches,” she explained. “There’s going to be lots and lots of shoots coming off those branches, and those new shoots will be very weak.”

Bassuk also said that some of the larger remaining branches are more likely to break in a storm. “I understand the need for line clearance,” she said, “but this does seem to be excessive.”

In May, the Arbor Day Foundation named PSEG LI a Tree Line USA Utility for utilizing tree-friendly practices that protect the trees. A statement at the time said that in 2017, the utility removed more than 11,000 trees and large limbs that were growing near power lines.

A spokesman for the Arbor Day Foundation wrote in an email, “Unfortunately our arborists can’t assess a situation via images.”

State Assemblyman Brian Curran, a Republican from Lynbrook, wrote in a letter to PSEG LI, “No reasonable person would argue that the action taken by the Vegetation Management Team was necessary or required to obtain the goal of safeguarding the future power supply to the area.” Curran added that the utility’s actions are “destroying the trees and the residential look of the Baldwin area.”

He said he had received several emails from Baldwin residents with before-and-after photos of the trees. “My concern is, in speaking with PSEG Long Island officials, that they’re on a four-year cycle,” Curran said. “If you look at those pictures, it’s hard to believe they’re on a four-year cycle. It looks more like a 10-year cycle.”

“Trees that grow too close to electric power lines are a top cause of power outages on Long Island,” Flagler said. “We have an obligation to provide safe, reliable service. One of the best ways we can do that is to trim trees near power lines before they can cause outages.”

Curran said he had asked PSEG LI to review the trimming program or scale back the extent to which the trees are cut, but the utility has not told him it would do either.

Bassuk said that PSEG should revisit the trees that it has already trimmed. “When you do this kind of massive cuts,” she said, “you have to come back and work with the trees.”