This story was updated at noon Aug. 28, 2014.
A group of Potomac residents has asked a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge to intervene to stop Pepco from removing mature trees on their properties.
In their complaint filed July 28, the residents, who live in the Potomac Crest development, claim Pepco came onto their properties and marked many large, mature barrier trees, and some smaller trees, for removal under the authority of a 1950s agreement the company says allows it to enter private property and cut or remove trees within 75 feet of the utility-owned right of way, which abuts the properties.
Residents claim the removal of the trees growing on their private property is excessive and would result in the destruction of a natural barrier between their homes and Pepco’s power lines as well as destroy the tree canopy, change topography and affect drainage. They also say the 1950s agreement cited by the utility is not referenced in any of their title documents, deeds or subdivision plans for the development.
Pepco declined to comment on the case.
However Pepco spokeswoman Courtney Nogas said the company in 1959 bought and paid for both its property and the right to cut and remove trees on portions of what are now private properties in Potomac Crest that the company determines could interfere with or fall on any of Pepco’s lines or poles.
At a hearing on Aug. 19, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order pending a full hearing on the merits.
According to plaintiffs, the restraining order temporarily prevents Pepco from removing trees on their properties — with the exception of two trees the utility claims pose imminent danger — until the next hearing, scheduled for Oct. 9.
The order does not prevent Pepco from clear cutting trees on its side of the property line, which it has already begun to do, giving residents a sample of what they face if the utility is allowed to take down all the trees it has marked for removal.
Jake Liang said he and his fellow plaintiffs sought the restraining order for fear they would come home from work one day to find Pepco had removed their trees.
On Monday, Liang said he had to rush home early from work to stop Pepco from removing one of his trees, which he said the utility claimed was one of two trees exempted from the restraining order.
Only by standing between Pepco workers and his tree was he able to prevent its removal that day, he said.
“Once they cut the trees, it’s over,” he said.
Nogas said, “This is about the aesthetic concerns of four Potomac homeowners who chose to buy homes adjacent to Pepco’s transmission and distribution lines. The work we are trying to do is critical to the safe and reliable electric service to tens of thousands of our customers, including schools and public safety, public health and other critical facilities.”
She said Pepco met with residents three separate times in June and July “in an effort to work collaboratively with them.”
Gregg Berman, a plaintiff, said when Pepco met with residents, it took the opportunity to mark even more trees for removal, some of which an independent arborist has said could be adequately maintained with pruning.
Residents concerns run much deeper than the mere aesthetics claimed by Pepco.
Berman said he and his fellow plaintiffs respect Pepco’s mandate to provide reliable power, having granted the utility permission for years to prune the trees on their properties. Pruning, he said, has been effective as to their knowledge none of their trees have caused outages.
But removing the trees completely threatens to decrease plaintiffs’ property values, and neighboring properties by extension, by as much as 10 to 20 percent, or several hundred thousand dollars, he said.
Liang said the homes in Potomac Crest were built and sold with the trees as a natural barrier. The trees separate the homes from Pepco’s swath of large, rusting utility poles, unkempt weeds and grass, and power lines.
Removing that barrier and leaving stumps behind for the owners to pay to remove diminishes the properties’ value, Berman said. The plaintiffs are working with their titling companies to assess the exact effect.
“If we were coming in today and buying this house and the homeowners said, ‘Lovely trees. By the way, Pepco has the right to chop these down and will be doing so in the next week,’ we probably wouldn’t buy the house,” Berman said.
Fan Yang, a plaintiff, said the trees were part of the total package that sold homeowners on their properties.
“I feel that there has been a lot of disrespect to personal privacy, disrespect to personal property rights,” she said. Berman said Pepco has also made it clear to plaintiffs that their properties in Potomac Crest are just the first of what plaintiffs believe could be thousands of other properties affected, if the 1959 document stands.