FPL Takes Tree Trimming Too Far

Overhead Powerlines Continue to Mar the Canopy – and Threaten Power Losses

For most of his life, Brendan Mooney could look out a window of the family home on De Soto Boulevard and see a ficus tree that grew to become a dominant feature of his residential neighborhood. But that tree is now in ruins, the victim, Mooney says, of pruning abuse.

“They cut it back way too much, without thinking about the survival of the tree,” says Mooney, an insurance agent. “I know they need to cut around power lines, but the way they cut it, the tree was destined to fall.”

And fall it did, during the last week of August. For about two weeks, yellow caution tape surrounded the remains of the tree, which stood at the center of the three-way intersection of Palermo Avenue, Cordova Street and De Soto Boulevard.

In a city proud of its urban forest – there are 39,000 trees in public spaces in Coral Gables, including on swales – maintaining the beauty and integrity of the canopy while ensuring an uninterrupted supply of electrical power is a delicate balance. Both the city and contractors hired by Florida Power & Light routinely trim trees to protect power lines that could be knocked down by falling limbs, especially during hurricane season. In fact, falling trees and windblown branches are the main cause of power outages, says FPL spokesman Frank Cantero.

But residents do complain, particularly when severe pruning cleaves a tree in half, or disfigures it with a V cut in the center that makes a sturdy tree look as if it has two arms up in surrender. “I understand why the city is doing it, to safeguard power lines,” says Laura Keepax, a high school teacher who lives on Sevilla Avenue.  “But they need to consult with an arborist. When they cut them in such an odd fashion, it seems the tree is at an imbalance and more fragile.”

The severely wounded tree in front of Mooney’s house, on city land, had undergone a V cut pruning to allow power lines to pass through the crown. “The nature of utility pruning is to provide for certain clearances, for safety and [to maintain] power,” says Brook Dannemiller, assistant public works director, whose job it is to protect the city’s canopy. Unfortunately, sometimes that means half the tree is lopped off – or V cut. “People don’t necessarily like the aesthetics,” admits Dannemiller.

The solution to the conflict between vegetation and power lines is “undergrounding,” or burying the electrical, cable and telephone lines, which also makes them virtually impervious to outages because of storms. But the cost is high and the pandemic has delayed plans.   

The idea to bury the power lines in Coral Gables was first discussed by the city commission in 2014, and more urgently pressed after Hurricane Irma left many residents without power in 2017.

During a virtual city commission meeting in August, city consultant Ramon Castella presented a report on the project, estimating that it would take 10 years to bury all the lines and cost between $320 million and $380 million. Voters would have to approve the project in a referendum.

That vote won’t take place any earlier than 2022, according to City Manager Peter Iglesias, because 2021 will be needed to educate the public. “It’s quite an endeavor and I think that we need to make the residents fully understand,” said Iglesias. In the meantime, residents may have to live with a trade-off that Keepax frames this way: “What is more important, the power or the trees?” 

Tree Trimming