Zilker's urban forest is one of the great characteristics of the neighborhood. Stately live oaks, pecans, red oaks and a wide variety of other smaller species provide relief from the summer heat and habitat for birds, squirrels, raccoons, and a multitude of other critters. Trees greater than 19" are protected and cutting of these trees requires a permit. More information concerning protected trees can be found on this City of Austin webpage about protected trees. If it appears that a protected tree is being cut down without a permit, you can report it by calling 311, reporting it online, or emailing the City Arborist.
Pruning of Electrical and Telecommunication Lines
Austin Energy Pruning by Jeff Jack
Hopefully, Austin Energy has become more sensitive to the protection our great trees since they were through our neighborhood a few years ago. You can help ensure a favorable result, though, by being proactive in the planning process and on site when the pruning is done.
1. When you get the city's notice (usually a door hanger) it will give a phone number to call.
2. Call and make an appointment with the supervisor who is in charge of the tree trimming in the area. The supervisor is usually an Austin Energy employee. If you do not get a notice from the city but see trimming on your street, call 311 and ask for Austin Energy. Explain you want to talk to the person in charge of tree trimming in your area.
3. Once you have a real person to talk to ask them to make a time certain appointment to come to your place and inspect the trees with you present.
4. Ask the supervisor to provide you with a written plan on how they are going to trim your trees.
5. You need for them to be very specific on what they are going to do. "We are going to trim that big limb off the wires" is not good enough. You want for them to say exactly where they are going to prune the limb, and ask them to explain if you think it is too much.
6. And get it in writing.
7. You can also ask if, instead of cutting off an important limb, they could move the wire a bit. This they can often do, but it takes more time. Remember, the crew that will actually be trimming the tree is probably not from Austin Energy but an outside contractor who wants to get done as fast as they can. They are not overly sensitive to pruning the minimum needed. Austin Energy takes about five years to cover the whole city, so they hope to trim each tree enough that it does not grow back to endanger their lines before they come around again. That may be a whole lot for some fast growing trees, like hackberry's, but not much in a slow grower like a red oak. They may try to trim everything alike, which they should not do.
8. If you do not like the plan that the supervisor has suggested, you can call an outside arborist and get another opinion. This will cost you but if A/E wants to butcher a beautiful tree, it may be worth it to get someone else to evaluate the situation and make an alternative pruning recommendation. Remember that each species of tree responds differently to pruning and all trees should not be pruned the same way. If you do get a second opinion, and it is different from what A/E wants to do, call the supervisor back and ask for a follow up meeting on site to review the alternative pruning plan.
9. In the end, if you have an overhead electrical wire running to your house, you have an implied easement to allow A/E to prune the trees that may impact their lines. A/E is all about electrical service reliability and long term maintenance costs; they are not concerned about the beauty of your tree or how it shades you house, or much of anything else. But while they do have this implied easement, it does not give them the right to butcher your tree. So, after a pruning plan is finalized, the most important thing is to make sure you are present when the trim crew comes to do you trees. If you are watching what they are doing, they are much more likely to be careful and only trim what is needed.
10. Another suggestion is to photograph the trees before and after they are pruned. In case the pruning is massive and the tree dies, then you have some evidence to use if you should ask A/E for damages. One of the biggest problems with A/E tree trimming is for trees right under their lines that have grown up to surrounded the wires. A/E's typical solution is to cut a "V" out of the center of the tree to give space to the wires. This makes the tree un-balanced and susceptible to splitting down the middle, but that may take a few years after the pruning to happen. If you have documentation, it will help with any claim you might make against A/E for killing the tree. Another problem is that they may trim only one side of a tree, once again making it un-balanced and subject to being blown over in high winds. Try to get them to prune the trees that leave them as symmetrical as possible to maintain a natural balance.
11. If you have any oak trees, make sure you remind the supervisor and crew that they need to sanitize their equipment to prevent the spread of oak wilt disease. They may say it is not the right time, but the disease can be in a tree for a long time before it show signs of stress, so it is better to be safe than sorry.
12. The last point has to do with whether or not the wound is sealed or painted after they have finished the trimming. Again A/E's contractors want to move on as fast as they can, and sealing their cuts is time consuming. When you are discussing the pruning plan with the supervisor, ask him about sealing the wounds. If you want to do a little research on your tree, call one of the arborists in the yellow pages, usually under "landscaping", and ask their advice about sealing the cuts on the particular trees you are concerned with.
Then after they are all done, go out an plant a new tree, a bit out from under the wires!
Telecommunication "drop lines" (not electrical power lines) by Dave Piper
There are different policies for main lines and for "drop lines", which go to individual houses.
For the installation of smaller "drop lines" that go from poles to homes, it's just an interaction between the homeowner and the installation tech. (Main lines serve a large number of customers, so homeowners have less authority over tree trimming.) The people who is string drop lines and install service at the home are required to avoid tree branches. Their jobs depend on the quality of the work. Lines that touch tree branches are a no-no.
The clearance distances for drop lines are far less than for main lines; often "not touching" is good enough. Any drop line that touches a branch, especially if the line is pulled out of its normal path, is doomed to fail eventually, although it may take several years for the branch to wear through the line's insulation.
If a drop line is just touching or resting on a branch (and not pulled out of its normal path) a thick plastic sleeve around the line works well. If homeowners have trees in the path of their drop lines, talk to the installation person and work something out regarding routing the line and trimming the trees. It's in no ones interest to install a line that is pulled by a tree branch. Associated service degradations start as intermittent problems and gradually worsen. They can be hard to diagnose, test, and locate, and usually require multiple complaint calls.