by Eric Ginsburg
The struggle between Greensboro residents and Duke Energy over tree trimming exploded in a confrontation last week that drew in the mayor and police.
Victoria and Neill Clegg are the kind of people that put a lot of pride into their yard — planting bushes, nurturing trees, cultivating calm and decorating with birdhouses.
“This yard is legendary,” a neighbor explained.
The Cleggs’ home, in Greensboro’s Westerwood neighborhood, is stop No. 6 on this week’s tour of historic homes by Preservation Greensboro, and buttresses another that is a stop on Westerwood’s annual art walk.
Last week the quiet character of the Cleggs’ backyard was transformed by the sounds of buzzing chainsaws as contractors for Duke Energy climbed trees alongside and behind their home on Crestland Avenue. By 10:30 a.m. on May 8, tempers flared, the police had been called, Victoria Clegg had left the scene crying and the assistant city manager arrived.
It’s just the latest incident in a multi-year saga in the neighborhood and city as residents and city council members alike struggle to figure out ways to preserve tree canopy within laws mandated by the state Utilities Commission.
Residents in Westerwood and several other neighborhoods convinced the city to create a new tree ordinance aimed at blocking more extreme vegetation management last year. With participation from Duke, council passed a stricter ordinance but failed to obtain support from the Utilities Commission on several tighter regulations that Duke opposed.
As she watched workers carry away chopped limbs to feed into a chipper, neighbor Donna Allred lamented a generally-held feeling of impotence.
“I really feel like it’s futile,” Allred said. “We went all the way up to the Utilities Commission and it didn’t change a thing.”
A swell of supportive neighbors including Allred watched as the Cleggs fought with employees of Duke Energy and its subcontractor, Asplundh. The couple, who hired a private arborist and paid $900 in December to avoid these more drastic cuts to the trees on their property, felt lied to and betrayed.
Last week cut limbs destroyed plants they had cared for and had been promised wouldn’t be harmed, they said. Duke Energy vegetation management specialist Jason Combs promised any property damage would be compensated.
“If there’s damage to any private property we’re going to hold Asplundh accountable,” he said, standing in their backyard. “Of course we will replace it.”
The Cleggs weren’t satisfied.
“Limbs could’ve been cut smaller and caught,” Victoria said, pacing alongside her house next to trampled hydrangeas and picking up a broken birdhouse that was knocked off its post. Furious about the damage and stating that she had been lied to and told the plants would be unscathed, she grilled Combs about why the private arborist’s work hadn’t been adequate. After all, she said, the Cleggs hired someone to avoid a situation like this after being urged to do so at a community meeting between residents, Duke Energy and the city. Combs offered a brief response.
“He doesn’t understand the hazards of working around power lines,” he said.
At one point Victoria physically restrained Neill, who threatened to call US Immigration & Customs Enforcement after he and his wife unsuccessfully yelled at the workers to leave. Clegg assumed that employees were undocumented based on their presumed race and given that a few communicated in Spanish. His threat stopped Asplundh temporarily, though a crew leader said immigration status wasn’t an issue and had nothing to do with the dispute.
“I cannot have anyone come out here and cuss out my employees,” an Asplundh crew leader named Bobby said, adding that he had been nothing but civil with the Cleggs. Both he and Neill said they would call the police, walking away from each other with phones in hand.
Neill later admitted he overreacted, but noted that it had been more effective than his preceding expletive-laced demands that the workers leave.
“I freely admit I lost my cool and showed my ass,” he said.
Two officers responded to the call, talking with Neill Clegg, Combs and a few others on the scene. Officer RR Neal’s tone calmed the fractious environment, and discussions about debris cleanup proceeded more cordially in his wake.
“I sympathize with you,” Officer Neal said to Clegg. “We keep hearing about this. I wish you the best of luck. It’s not an easy situation. That would upset me as well.”
After tensions cooled, Assistant City Manager David Parrish talked with residents and Combs over the rumbling growl of an Asplundh truck shredding tree limbs in front of the Cleggs house.
“We probably need to have a transitional meeting about this,” Parrish said to Combs.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who wasn’t at the scene but who had attempted to prevent the planned cuts the night before, said the city has been responsive to residents about other issues related to the historic-homes tour as well as tree trimming.
“This Duke Power thing came up and we hit a wall because they don’t give the same kind of customer service that the city does,” she said. “What was really disappointing and extremely disheartening is what they did to the Cleggs’ property. To me, I just don’t understand that philosophy of customer service. Besides it not being a good business model, it just isn’t kind.”
Vaughan said she asked the city manager to reach out to Davis Montgomery, the company’s district manager for the area, and said she contacted him directly requesting Duke Energy postpone the cuts until after the historic-homes tour. The Cleggs spent a lot of time and money preparing their house for the tour, Vaughan said, and she didn’t see why the company couldn’t accommodate them.
“It was a perfectly reasonable request to ask them to come back in two weeks,” Vaughan said.
Unsure of what could be accomplished at a community meeting, Vaughan said the next step is to evaluate the tree-trimming work that has been done before Duke Energy returns for more cuts next week to see if the city’s ordinance has been violated and to assess damage.
John Graham, who works with Preservation Greensboro and arrived on the scene last week said that “you can’t ask for a better response” than the support coming from Vaughan and the city. Fired up and followed shortly by two news crews, Graham injected more energy into the opposition that morning.
“The cavalry’s coming out for this,” he said. “This is no small potatoes. Duke is the real culprit here and they have no sense of community. We’ve got your back on this one and we’re furious. They have awakened a sleeping giant.”
Graham said he was certain that Duke Energy knew about the tour of homes because he asked Montgomery if the company would sponsor the event to rebuild goodwill after severe tree cuts more than a year ago. Graham was almost as animated when he arrived as the earlier skirmish, blasting Montgomery’s alleged ineffectualness and unwillingness to listen.
“He’s flaccid and ineffectual,” he said. “Quote me on that. He just flaps his trap.”
Montgomery could not be reached for comment.
Despite frustrations, the Cleggs’ home will still be a part of the historic tour, Graham said later. But as the couple promised that day, every one of the expected hundreds of visitors will get an earful about Duke Energy’s practices.