CLEARWATER — Harriet Patterson stood on her back porch, gazing mournfully at a barren patch of earth. That's all that is left of her beautiful back yard.
"They took everything. The fruit trees, the kumquats — absolutely everything," she said. "It was a jungle back here. I had tons of overgrowth, and I loved it."
Many residents of a north Clearwater neighborhood are upset that Progress Energy is cutting a mile-long swath through their back yards, chopping down tall oaks and palms.
"Nobody wants to see the whole character of their yard ripped out," said Casey Harris, who lives in the neighborhood off Keene Road.
Progress Energy is replacing two dozen old wooden power poles with new steel poles along a major power line running east-to-west between Kings Highway and Keene Road on the northern edge of the city. Forestry crews are removing trees and other vegetation to make way for heavy equipment to come in and carve out space for the new power poles.
"No one enjoys destroying trees," said Progress spokesman Rob Sumner. "We need to strike a balance between the natural beauty of our state and our mandated responsibility to provide safe, reliable electricity. And trees are the No. 1 cause of power outages."
The power company can legally remove the trees because it has an easement that runs through the back yards, dating back decades to when the neighborhood was originally platted and developed. It's a 50-foot-wide easement because it follows a high-voltage transmission line that runs between power substations, rather than an ordinary power distribution line that carries electricity to homes.
Neighbors along the power line had been forewarned. Still, some of them were upset by the sight of stumps where queen palms and massive oaks had once stood. Some sent petitions and emails to City Hall or wrote to the city's Facebook page, imploring the city to do something.
"They have already removed hundreds of mature, beautiful trees, forever changing the landscape of our yards and our neighborhood," said another neighbor, Patty Durell. "I am afraid that the days of me sitting in my back yard enjoying the abundance of birds and wildlife that used to live in these trees is gone."
But the city of Clearwater has no legal authority to compel Progress Energy to do anything different, said city engineering director Mike Quillen. The city manager and city attorney have met with Progress officials about the power pole project and have asked them to remove as few trees as possible.
"It's a huge project they're doing," Quillen said. "It's been so long since they've been in there, there are some big trees that are coming out."
The power company told the city that it would go back after the work was done and plant new trees in 15-gallon pots, he said. "That's still going to be nothing compared to the size of the trees they took out."
Sumner, the Progress Energy spokesman, said the work is necessary. The power company routinely makes upgrades to its 5,000 miles of transmission lines in its 35-county service area, he said. Progress Energy Florida is now a subsidiary of Duke Power.
"Those wooden poles are just wearing out," Sumner said. "This will harden the system against severe weather."
He said crews would begin installing the new poles next month and should finish by late December or early January. The new poles will be 5 feet taller than the current poles.
He said the power company contacted each homeowner. It has offered to move fences and sheds out of harm's way, and to plant young trees that, when mature, will be the appropriate height to be located next to a power transmission line.
Standing on her back porch, Harriet Patterson is still mourning her yard. She has been offered a new fence, but she wants her trees back instead.
As for Casey Harris, he had his lawyer meet with the power company to discuss the fate of his backyard sheds. "You can't just let them come in like barbarians and tear everything up," he said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.