Cut down

Lynn and Chris Law spent years searching for the perfect natural setting where they could build their mountain home. The Winston-Salem couple found it in the Ox Creek community, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, where a swath of trees along a stream shielded their property from the road.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Buncombe County, Melissa and Taylor Webb also thought they’d found their idyllic dream-home site in a private wooded lot on the side of Little Pisgah Mountain in Fairview. They especially enjoyed the tree-lined approach to the spot where they’re building their house.

“To me, I thought it was breathtaking,” recalls Melissa Webb.

Both couples thought they’d taken steps to ensure that few trees would be affected when CP&L brought power lines from the street to their home sites. So the Laws and Webbs were shocked when they saw the results of the work done by two different nationally known subcontractors hired by CP&L.

The Laws say they paid CP&L $800 to put in a new pole so the incoming line could follow their driveway, requiring only a few limbs to be trimmed off a locust tree (instead of cutting through a patch of woods). But Lynn Law counted 11 trees felled in April by The Davey Tree Expert Co., when a Davey crew admittedly erred in following directions. Only the intervention of a CP&L representative, who stopped by while the crew was at work, kept any more trees from falling, she says.

“I’ve lost all of the privacy and serenity in this part of my creek, which I loved so much,” laments Lynn Law — standing in a small clearing, once covered by a dense canopy of branches, beside a gurgling stream. “It cost us extra to do it, and they still cut our trees down, which is pretty mindless, you know.”

A majestic tulip poplar was a notable casualty, she adds.

Truman Revis, a general foreman for several local Davey Tree crews, says the three-person crew sited from the wrong marker that day in deciding where to cut. Afterward, the crew cleaned up the mess, which he says consisted of only four or five trees — not the 11 that Lynn Law counted.

“It was just a mistake in that one instance,” says Revis, noting that this was the first time something like this has happened with one of his crews in the eight years he’s worked for Davey Tree.

As a result of the error, Revis says he broke up the three-person crew and demoted the foreman. Of the remaining two crew members, only one still works for Davey Tree, Revis explains.

He says the company is working with the Laws to replace the trees and is awaiting an estimate from them on the cost of planting replacements. (Although Davey Tree had offered to replant trees themselves, Lynn Law says she doesn’t think the “tree destroyers” have sufficient landscaping experience.)

The Webbs say they had four discussions with CP&L representatives about the trees to be trimmed and topped on their property, and the lone tree to be cut down — including one meeting in which Melissa put her hand on the tree that was to fall. But after Asplundh Tree Expert Co. was finished last July, the Webbs say they’d lost 14 or 15 trees and several groups of saplings.

“We had trees that were almost 100 years old,” reveals Taylor Webb, recalling how he and his wife had counted more than 75 rings on one of the stumps that was left.

Taylor particularly misses a favorite red maple he used to sit under. And like the Laws, the Webbs miss the privacy afforded by the trees.

“To me, the biggest thing was losing this number of trees,” laments Melissa Webb. “We’ll never have this [again] in this lifetime.”

The Webbs are critical of Asplundh, its insurance carrier and the $1,800 they’ve been offered in compensation; they calculate the cost of the tree replacement to be around $15,000. But they say they have no beef with CP&L, whose representative apologized to the couple in person.

Barry Suddreth, Asplundh’s manager of operations for the company’s Charlotte office, says his company is working diligently to resolve the matter.

“I don’t think there’s any argument that there’s more trees cut than there was supposed to be, and we’re working to get that resolved,” Suddreth says.

But he didn’t want to comment on how the error happened, other than to allow that “mistakes are made from time to time.”

Asplundh has a very good track record, Suddreth asserts, adding, “It’s a very small number that we get complaints over.”

As far as CP&L is concerned, the matter is now technically between the subcontractors and the two families, says Nancy Thompson, community-relations manager for the utility’s Asheville office.

“We have contracts with both companies to trim the trees,” Thompson says. “We don’t get involved too much after that part. It’s between them and the contractor.”

But a state official cautions that CP&L may bear some responsibility for seeing that their subcontractors do their jobs correctly.

“CP&L’s responsible for its subcontractor,” says Carol Stahl, director of the Consumer Services Division of the N.C. Utilities Commission Public Staff, which represents consumers. “They hired these people to do work for them.”

Although the specific tree-cutting errors are between the subcontractors and the customers, Thompson acknowledges that CP&L does bear the responsibility of hiring capable subcontractors who carry adequate insurance coverage — a responsibility she says the company has fulfilled.

“Basically, the responsibility we have is to have competent contractors, which we feel like we do because we hire nationally known and recognized contractors,” Thompson reports.

She also says the company tries to do everything it can to make sure customers are satisfied. She points to a ranking by J.C. Power and Associates, a marketing-information firm that recently rated CP&L in the top 25 percent of power companies nationwide in terms of customer satisfaction.

“We really do care about our customers, and we want them to be satisfied,” she emphasizes.

Thompson (who’s been at CP&L for four-and-a-half years) says this is first time she’s heard complaints such as those voiced by the Laws and Webbs.

“Hopefully, it’s unusual,” she observes.

More often, says Thompson, people complain about the utility company trimming trees in rights of.way, which is necessary to ensure reliable, safe power service.

Stahl says her office doesn’t typically hear from people complaining about trees cut between their street and their house, either.

While CP&L and the subcontractors maintain that these are isolated instances, Lynn Law and Taylor Webb still wonder. But whether or not it’s a widespread problem, the situation has definitely hit home for these two families.

“Just for us, it was very, very important,” Lynn Law says. “They’ve stolen something that can’t be replaced, and that’s sad.”

Got a complaint?

People with complaints about CP&L may call the company’s Customer Service Center at (800) 452-2777.

Folks who aren’t satisfied with the company’s response can take their beefs to a higher level.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission Public Staff is an independent state agency that makes recommendations to the N.C. Utilities Commission. Among the Public Staff’s duties is investigating complaints (both formal and informal) affecting utility customers. The commission regulates utilities providing electrical, communications, natural gas, transportation and water and sewer services, according to the Public Staff’s Web site (www.pubstaff.commerce.state.nc.us/).

Last year, the Public Staff received 11,003 complaints; of those, about 25 went to the level of formal complaints involving the Utilities Commission, says Carol Stahl, director of the Public Staff’s Consumer Services Division.

To lodge a complaint, write to: Carol Stahl, Consumer Services Division, Public Staff-N.C. Utilities Commission, 4326 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-4326.

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