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On Sept. 25, Duke Energy officials told the city they planned to chop down 280 trees that had the potential to reach 15 feet within a transmission line's 68-foot-wide corridor.

Trees and power lines conflict along Durham's Green and Watts streets 

Duke Energy has proposed chopping down 280 trees underneath the Green Street transmission line.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Duke Energy has proposed chopping down 280 trees underneath the Green Street transmission line.

In Durham's Trinity Park, a power line cuts a 2.2-mile-long path on its way to a substation on Duke's campus, towering over hundreds of old trees that line the leafy residential streets. Under a recent proposal from Duke Energy, Green Street would be a little less green in the name of preserving electric service.

On Sept. 25, Duke Energy officials told the city they planned to chop down all trees that had the potential to reach 15 feet within the transmission line's 68-foot-wide corridor. The plan would have felled at least 280 trees, beginning on Oct. 1, to clear the easement for the transmission line, which is a towering, 100,000-volt artery—the kind usually reserved for corn fields and the edges of town.

The next day, Kevin Lilley, the city's facilities operations manager, drafted a cease-and-desist letter, expressing concern about the magnitude of a plan presented to Durham with one week's notice.

"It seems to me that both the transmission line and the trees have coexisted for quite some time, and that any wholesale removal, as you prescribe, would warrant a more detailed discussion involving the appropriate city staff and representatives," Lilley wrote to Ken Kernodle of Duke Energy.

"There was some concern about the communications time frame," Kernodle said of the chopping plan, which he said Duke Energy has known about for "a number of years."

Deferring that plan for the moment, representatives from Duke Energy met on Oct. 3 with an urban forestry group that included Lilley and Durham City Council members Eugene Brown and Mike Woodard.

"I told [Duke Energy] there will be people chaining themselves to trees if this thing goes forward and they need to revisit the whole idea ... because this could be disastrous," Brown said.

The next day, Kernodle and power company spokesman Phil Ray discussed their plans with about 25 Trinity Park residents at the corner of Green and Watts streets.

Ray explained that a 1910 agreement granted Duke Energy easement rights along a then-undeveloped section of Durham, at a time when residents "still had cows and chickens."

"It seems to me that Duke [Energy] could take an eye to compromise ... to avoid chopping all our trees down," resident Caelia Bingham said at the meeting.

"It is a question that will be passed along," Ray replied.

Later, he added: "Everything that's a problem today is an encroachment on the powercompany's rights to be here."

The residents wondered aloud whether decades of coexistence between trees and power lines would "grandfather" the trees in. Resident Toby Berla asked if the power lines couldn't be raised instead. (Ray flatly rejected that proposal.) Many rallied around the notion that a tree-by-tree analysis would be far more beneficial than wholesale chopping.

That final suggestion, at least, appears to have stuck. In an interview with the Independent, Kernodle said, "I think that's a suggestion that will certainly be taken into account and considered."

A revised plan would be proposed as early as this week, he said.

Trinity Park resident Carol Anderson spotted Ray photographing trees the day after the meeting.

"I was quite heartened. It made me feel like it was not all a lot of hot air. At least at the local level, they are paying attention and want what's best for Durham," she said.

But Berla wondered whether those concerns will reach the rest of the company.

"I think we all have to understand that we're dealing with a very large corporation that has its own policies and its own reasons for doing what it does," he said. "It would be naïve to think that a couple of PR reps can move that big of a company all by themselves."

When asked if a similar plan could take root in Chapel Hill or Raleigh—each of which hosts transmission lines, though mostly in rural areas—Kernodle replied: "You have a challenging dilemma there, but ... there has to be a solution where safe and reliable energy can be maintained."

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