Tree-related power outages frustrate business owners

The Australian pine trees between 60th Street N and Faxton Street, parallel roads that run south off Ulmerton Road, are tall. Some are as tall as 100 feet, estimates Larry Fisk, whose business property is lined with them.

The trees are so tall that, at some spots, they obscure the power lines running through them. For nearby residents and business owners like Fisk, the regular power outages caused by limbs knocking into the lines have been a source of frustration for years.

"It doesn't even have to be windy," said Fisk, 62, owner of Dolphin Marine, in an unincorporated area east of U.S. 19. "You can stand out here some days and hear them (tree limbs) cracking and falling."

The trees are in Progress Energy's easement, and Fisk has been asking the power company to remove them for years, to no avail. So he read with interest a Nov. 13 article in the St. Petersburg Times about Progress Energy removing old oak trees near its power lines along St. Pauls Drive in Largo. Residents there protested. The trees aren't close to the lines, they said.

The trees are in the company's easement, Progress Energy replied, and even though their limbs don't threaten the power lines now, they could someday.

"We don't want to remove trees ... but this is something we have to do to ensure we continue providing safe and reliable power," Progress spokesman Tim Leljedal said then.

These trees are a different matter, though, according to Leljedal. The St. Pauls Drive trees were next to transmission lines, which run between power plants. A transmission line outage can affect tens of thousands of customers. The lines Fisk is talking about behind Faxton Street are distribution lines — smaller lines that take power to homes or businesses. Distribution line outages typically affect fewer than 100 customers, Leljedal said.

While Progress Energy has broad rights along transmission lines to remove trees, it does not have the same rights along distribution lines, according to Leljedal.

But to business owners like Fisk and Duane Royer, the power company is practicing a double standard.

Royer, 59, is president of the Music Gallery on Ulmerton Road. He says his building almost burned down a few years ago after an outage caused some of his equipment to start sparking. Royer has worked in that building since 1977 and says the trees have always been a problem. The exploding sound of a transformer shorting out has become part of the ambience of living or working there, he says.

Royer and Fisk figure Progress Energy won't remove the trees because it's cheaper to fix outages than it is to clear out a few dozen trees. But that hurts their bottom lines, they say. They lose money each time there's an outage during the business day.

"I gotta send everyone home," Fisk said. "No one gets paid."

Leljedal confirmed there have been multiple tree-related outages in that area this year, and that Progress Energy crews have trimmed along the lines. He said crews visited the area Tuesday and identified a few other places where they can trim.

"They're going to do some trimming and take care of some vines in the area, and hopefully that will provide some additional support in limiting the likelihood of future outages," Leljedal said.

The power company cannot cut the trees down, though, Leljedal said, because it doesn't have that right along distribution lines.

That answer isn't good enough for Fisk, who opened his office on Faxton more than 20 years ago. His lot was filled with the trees then. In 1985, he and a crew of five or six men cleared out 60 or 70 trees. It took a few days.

"I believe it's money," he said, "and they don't want to spend it."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@sptimes.com.

Tree-related power outages frustrate business owners 11/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 5:29pm]

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