As utility crews wield their saws, tree-loving residents make a stand
September 23, 2007 As utility crews wield their saws,

When she woke up to the mechanical gnawing sounds of tree saws one morning in the spring, Parvin Khan was still living on a tree-filled property that fed her nature-loving spirit. The sounds were distant, but it didn't take long to realize "they were coming to my house," she recalled.

Utility crews from PSE&G, emboldened by a new vegetation-management policy enacted by the state Board of Public Utilities last December, cleared the rows of trees that once sheltered Khan's Bridgewater home.

The property, she said, looked "like a war zone."
"They cut down everything," Khan said. "It's a disaster."
Rattled by crippling blackouts in New Jersey in 2003 and 2004, the BPU revised its regulations to better keep electric lines or towers from making dangerous contact with trees, said board spokesman Doyal Siddell. The new policy reflects right-of-way standards adopted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

But furious residents and municipal officials who combed through the new rules say utility crews are going overboard.

In Readington Township, swaths of trees have been wiped away from preserved woodlands, said Township Committeewoman Julia Allen.

The clear-cutting included 150-year-old beeches and "gnarly old cherries," Allen said, as well as vegetation around environmentally sensitive waterways.

Mayor Gerard Shamey called it "pretty shocking."
Residents flooded the township with calls, Allen said. "The phones were just lighting up," she said. "We were not warned the policy had dramatically changed."

Parvin Khan says the tree cutting in her neighborhood seemed haphazard and unreasonable, so she began knocking on doors. "I went to the neighbors and said, 'My trees are gone - let's save yours,'" she said.

Khan found a kindred spirit in Victor Kolvites, a resident in nearby Branchburg who has seen dramatic cutting in his neighborhood this year. "I sympathized with her right away," Kolvites said. "They used to just trim the trees. Then one day, they just came and took everything."


Khan and other residents were able to enlist the help of Bridgewater Mayor Patricia Flannery, who met with Public Service Electric & Gas officials. When the meeting yielded little in the way of compromise, township administrator James Naples said, the township went further, setting up an ad hoc committee to address the new BPU standards.

BPU and PSE&G dispatched representatives to the series of committee meetings, which ran several months.

"I think they were scared we were going to be a group of radical complainers," said former Bridgewater councilman Charles Harrison, who chaired the committee. "There was an attempt for all of us to come to a reasonable compromise."

Don McBride, a Bridgewater resident who is also a member of the Sierra Club's Raritan Valley Group, said BPU officials seemed attentive and amenable but that the underlying message was still, "We do anything we want."

"The BPU has to feel some pressure," McBride said.
Now may be the time. The BPU is in the process of re-adopting regulations that cover vegetation management. The re-publishing of the regulations Sept. 4 provided a 60-day public comment period.

In Branchburg, where a woman tied herself to a tree destined for removal this spring, Administrator Gregory Bonin said residents should use the comment period to make themselves heard.

Townships are doing the same. In a June 14 letter to the BPU, the Readington Planning Board tersely observed that woodlands removal has affected water quality and stormwater runoff. In fact, the letter noted, the township received a state grant "to protect the very trees you are allowing to be destroyed."

In Bridgewater, a retired safety manager with Jersey Central Power & Light, Alexander Saharic, was hired to pull together a report on ways to safely temper the cutting practices. Mayor Flannery submitted the report earlier this month.

Vegetation management, the report says, "does not require absolute clearing or clear-cutting that leaves the area blighted."

As a result of the Bridgewater meetings, PSE&G halted work in the township and agreed not to resume until Nov. 4, when the comment period ends, PSE&G spokeswoman Karen Johnson said.


Flannery also has contacted the New Jersey League of Municipalities. Last week, Director William Dressel sent his own letter to the BPU supporting Saharic's report.

"It's a difficult issue and it gets rather emotional," Dressel said. He urged other municipalities to take advantage of the comment period, saying it would "let the BPU president know this is not a situation that is unique to Bridgewater."

Khan says residents were outraged when the cutting started but their interest has waned.

"I don't know how to make everyone aware. They think it's done," Khan said. "But in the future, they can come back. There are still trees left. Some people must care. I care."

"Alone, if you cry, nobody is going to listen to you," Khan said. "I can't fight for all of you."

Nyier Abdou may be reached at or (908) 429-9925
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