Pam McCoy and husband Ben built their family’s house on the same property in South Tampa where her childhood home once stood. They took pains to work around the big, sprawling oak on the lot, which had been outside her bedroom window when she was growing up.
Last Valentine’s Day, McCoy came home to find the shady branches topping her tree split into a wide V, the work of tree trimmers aiming to keep limbs away from power lines.
“I drove up,” she said. “And I started crying.”
Every year, the big trucks come trundling through neighborhoods from St. Petersburg’s Old Southeast to Hyde Park in Tampa, there to trim back trees that could down power lines.
The results, visible in communities across Tampa Bay, can be dramatic: a wide gap where leafy limbs once were, and a jarring sight to some in a place known for its tree canopy.
“I believe that the tree trimming around the electric lines must be done — my problem with it is how it’s done,” said Carroll Ann Bennett, founding member of Tampa Tree Advocacy Group and vice president of an umbrella organization for Tampa neighborhoods. “I think a lot of times the tree companies just butcher the tree. It’s the fastest way, it’s the easiest way.”
“It just looks terrible,” said Gary Grudzinskas, president of St. Petersburg’s Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Both Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co. say trees are a major cause of power outages, which makes cutting them back a necessity. The utilities contract with tree-trimming businesses to do the work year-round, with Duke adding an extra trimming ahead of hurricane season. Duke trims trees on a three- to five-year cycle and Tampa Electric on a four-year one.
And they are aware some residents do not like the looks of it.
Tampa Electric gets about a dozen or two dozen tree-trimming complaints every year that can range from too much pruning to limbs in need of trimming, according to a spokesperson. Duke did not provide a number of complaints made directly to the utility. City governments in St. Petersburg and Tampa also hear it.
“Complaints about tree trimming are common,” said city of Tampa spokesperson Adam Smith.
The Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates the electric, natural gas and water and wastewater industries in the state, received two formal tree-trimming complaints about Tampa Electric in 2022. Duke said it received seven formal customer complaints through the commission that year.
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The utilities say trimming is about keeping the lights on.
“Duke Energy works to balance aesthetics with our goal to provide safe, reliable power to the households and businesses that depend on us,” Duke spokesperson Audrey Stasko said in an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times. She said it’s understandable that customers have concerns when they see their neighborhood trees cut back.
“We trim in a way that protects the structure and the health of the tree, and we follow industry standards,” said Cherie Jacobs, spokesperson for Tampa Electric, which she said employs certified arborists and foresters to oversee the work. Tampa Electric invests about $25 million a year in tree trimming, she said.
Both companies noted that they have for multiple years been named as Tree Line USA utilities, which recognizes “best practices in utility arboriculture,” according to its website.
The V-shaped cutting may be dismaying to some. But according to an urban forestry expert who works across the U.S., it’s an accepted practice.
“Pruning trees is a lot like making sausage,” said Walt Warriner of the Hawaii-based Warriner Associates. “You don’t want to see it done, you just want to see the end product.”
A University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences blog notes that it’s not the utility companies’ primary intent to prune trees for aesthetic purposes, but to direct growth away from power lines.
“Controversy can arise when property owners believe that their trees were pruned inappropriately or too severely,” the blog says. “Though sometimes mistakes are made, the contractor performing the work is typically following specifications as directed by the utility.”
“Unfortunately, the issue is the public health and safety, and keeping the lights on is always going to supersede the aesthetics,” Ryan Klein, assistant professor of arboriculture with the University of Florida, told the Times.
In South Tampa, Pam McCoy said she understands the need to trim limbs away from power lines. But what happened to her tree, she said, is “such a hack job.”
The McCoys said they have consulted two arborists, one who thought their tree would probably be OK and one who did not.
Jacobs at Tampa Electric said she had one of the utility’s arborists look at before and after photographs of the McCoys’ tree provided by the Times. She said the trimming complied with proper arboriculture practices and didn’t jeopardize the health or structure of the tree.
Tom Connelly, president of the Virginia Park Neighborhood Association in Tampa, said when a crew recently showed up to trim his grand oak, he asked for the supervising arborist he had seen mentioned on the utility’s website to be present. When the crew came another day, again without the arborist, he said, he stood outside and they left. The supervising arborist ultimately came, and the job was satisfactory, Connelly said.
“You can hardly tell mine was trimmed,” Connelly said.
Grudzinskas from St. Petersburg called the tree-trimming situation “kind of a balance” between keeping power lines functioning and turning trees into “eyesores.”
In Tampa, Marylou Bailey is president of Hyde Park Preservation Inc., a neighborhood association that has organized and continues to sponsor a collaborative effort to put 175 live oaks in rights of way over the last decade.
“We love our trees,” she said.
The tree-trimming issue, Bailey said, is “not an easy one.”
“I don’t like the aesthetics,” she said. “But they are trying to harden the neighborhood for coming storms.”