At the last Pinellas County Commission meeting, concerns were raised about Duke Energy’s tree removal practices. Residents have reported insufficient notice before tree cutting and poor follow-up after the trees were removed, leaving unsightly stumps and half-cut trees. 

Despite Duke Energy’s claim of informing property owners before tree removal, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton acknowledged that many complaints indicated otherwise. To address this, the county will compile and share complaints received from residents. 

The company’s tree trimming policy states that notification may be made via door hanger, telephone call, letter, in-person contact or a combination of these methods. It adds that if attempts to notify the property owner are unsuccessful, work will proceed without further direct notification. It also says there may be instances when a tree must be trimmed or removed without prior notification.

Duke Energy uses a mature tree height determination to decide which trees to remove, projecting future growth and potential interference with power lines. The policy has resulted in significant neighborhood impact, raising questions about its implementation.

Burton addressed the issue, stating that he had a preliminary conversation with Duke Energy’s upper management team, including Florida President Melissa Seixas, and that the company has committed to working more closely with county staff.  He added that Duke Energy would tour targeted areas with county officials to improve coordination.

Burton offered one explanation for the disconnect between Duke Energy’s reported communication efforts and residents’ experiences, in that complaints often come from neighbors, who wouldn’t receive the notices, rather than the property owners. 

Commissioner Dave Eggers said that residents should be warned with sufficient notice to appeal the tree removal, or to arrange for their own tree trimming, which could keep trees under the height at which Duke would remove them.

Duke Energy’s policy of not grinding stumps after tree removal has been another source of frustration for residents. Burton mentioned that the power company is reconsidering this policy, recognizing that leaving stumps is an added inconvenience. 

Commissioner Eggers suggested that taking out the stumps might better balance the financial elements of Duke’s vegetation policy, noting that “cutting down trees seems to be cheaper than trimming trees. So if you add the stump cost in there, that might make them think a little bit differently.” 

Damage to county rights of way caused by contractors working for Duke Energy also came up during the discussion, including instances where the county permitting process wasn’t followed. According to Burton, steps are being taken to enforce permit requirements and ensure compliance.

Commissioner Brian Scott supported the steps taken and suggested a future presentation by Duke Energy to provide detailed information to residents, particularly those who have raised concerns. He also inquired about the county’s permit enforcement capabilities. Public Works Director Kelly Levy clarified that the county issues general annual permits to cities and utility providers for maintenance work, but tree removals require separate permits, ensuring the county has enforcement authority.

Burton noted that Duke Energy has agreed to provide a copy of its vegetation management plan and share data on its decision-making process. The company will also collaborate with the county’s forestry services to discuss tree removal criteria, and review its urban forestry and vegetation management programs. 

Burton concluded that the meeting with Duke Energy was a productive first step. The company expressed a willingness to work with the county and address the issues raised. Burton assured that the county would continue to monitor the situation and report back on progress.

A follow-up meeting is planned for later in the summer.

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