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Largo homeowners livid about Progress Energy plan to cut down 35 trees

LARGO — The oak trees in Mary Lou Sciarrino's back yard form a thick canopy over an extended patio, putting green, waterfall and playground that she and her husband built over the last 32 years.

Some of those oaks are doomed, though, slated to be cut down by Progress Energy this summer because they're in the power company's easement and, Progress officials say, a potential threat to power lines that run through Sciarrino's back yard.

Sciarrino disagrees. Strongly.

"They're going to make an abortion of this tranquility, this peacefulness that I've created here," Sciarrino, 63, said Wednesday as she surveyed her yard.

She paused for a second, as if rethinking her words, then said to a reporter, "Make sure that goes in print. An abortion."

Sciarrino, the owner of a company that makes components for satellite communication, is not alone in her outrage. Progress Energy plans to remove 35 oak trees in the Largo area over the next few weeks. The trees stand in the company's easement around 230,000-volt transmission lines that run along several streets, including St. Paul's Drive, where Sciarrino lives.

Progress Energy spokesman Tim Leljedal said the mass tree removal is necessary to prevent outages during storms and ensure the safety of employees who work on the lines.

Leljedal also points to federal guidelines that became mandates after the Northeast blackout of 2003. The mandates threaten power companies with fines of up to $1 million a day per blackout caused by vegetation.

"This is something that we have to do in order to ensure that we can continue to deliver safe and reliable power," said Leljedal.

Transmission lines carry more powerful levels of electricity than distribution lines, and a transmission line outage affects more customers.

Progress' policy is to remove any tree in its transmission line easements that can grow taller than 12 feet. The lowest a transmission line along St. Paul's Drive can sag when electric demand is at its highest is 30 feet above the ground, according to Leljedal.

To Jonathan Key, who bought a Victorian-style home overlooking a pond a few doors down from Sciarrino last August, Progress is lumping trees that don't present a risk in with ones that should come down.

A Progress Energy forester visited Key's home and pointed to several oaks in his back yard near the end of Progress' easement, which extends 50 feet east of the power lines. He said the trees would need to go, even though it could be years, if ever, before the trees grow tall and wide enough to threaten the power lines.

Key, 42, the owner of a seafood wholesale company, pointed out that if he had wanted to remove the trees himself, he likely would have encountered roadblocks from Largo officials.

"They would ask me if I was smoking crack. But they (Progress Energy) don't need permits," he said. "They're above the law."

State law bars municipalities from interfering with power companies' removal of vegetation in or near their easements. A Largo homeowner wanting to remove a healthy oak tree for personal reasons would need to do some type of mitigation, like planting another oak somewhere, to obtain a tree removal permit from the city, according to Jonathan Evans, assistant to the Largo city manager.

Key also noted an ironic potential impact of losing the trees: With more sunshine hitting his house, his electric bill will likely go up, increasing his monthly payments to Progress Energy.

Leljedal countered that it's not just federal fines and power-line damage motivating his company — employee safety is at stake as well. Trees near transmission lines can pose significant risks to workers, he said.

Progress isn't alone in removing all trees in easements along transmission lines. Tampa Electric Co. has a similar policy, according to company spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

Florida Power & Light Co., though, primarily prunes along its lines, except for "trees that interfere with FPL facilities and cannot be pruned without dramatically affecting the shape or health of the tree," according to the company's website.

This is not the first time Progress' policy has begot negative publicity for the company. Residents in Wilmington, N.C., protested last year when Progress Energy announced tree removal plans there, and officials with both the city of Ocala and the state Department of Transportation were miffed in 2009 when Progress lopped trees on city and DOT property.

Progress Energy employees told Key three weeks ago that they would return in about three weeks to remove the trees. Leljedal said he can't nail down an exact time when the trees will be removed.

"Sometimes it takes a little more discussion with those affected before we reach a time when it seems good to move forward with the work," he said. "But we will have to remove those trees. This is work that needs to be done."

If Leljedal is waiting for Sciarrino to cool down, he could be waiting for quite a while. She described the Progress employees who visited her home as "creeps" and "idiots" when discussing her trees last week, and wants to talk to an attorney about her legal options.

Sciarrino and her husband, Anthony, bought the home in 1979. Largo High School's "Band of Gold" built the house, and proceeds from the sale of it financed a trip to Europe for the band.

Anthony Sciarrino died of a stroke last year. Mary Lou Sciarrino shudders to think how her husband, who loved to feed the squirrels that lived in the oaks, would react if he knew the "Band of Gold house" was going to lose some of its oak trees.

"It would have broken his heart," she said. "I just can't believe they're going to destroy this."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@sptimes.com.

Largo homeowners livid about Progress Energy plan to cut down 35 trees 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 4:31am]
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