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Power to the people

Something's got to go -- the power line or the trees.

That's the message St. Croix Electric officials have delivered to Arvid and Mona Flanum of rural New Richmond.

St. Croix Electric has indicated that large pines trees on the Flanum's property have to be removed immediately, or the couple has to pay to have an overhead power line on their property buried. The trees have grown up and engulfed power lines that provide electricity to the neighborhood.

Trees in contact with power lines have been causing power outages on a too-frequent basis, and St. Croix Electric officials are trying to solve the problem.

But the Flanums say the rural electric cooperative is being unreasonable in its establishment of a July 1 deadline for a decision in the matter. Arvid Flanum also said the $13,884 price tag to bury the power line is excessive.

"I just don't have that kind of money laying around," he said. "But I really don't want to lose my trees."

He said the line of trees provide shelter for his home, helping to reduce heating costs in the winter and cooling costs in the summer.

"We put these trees in to conserve heat and electrical energy," Flanum said.

The situation could have been resolved years ago, Flanum said, when he brought up the idea of installing underground lines throughout Oak Ridge.

"I've been after them for 40 years to bury the power line," he said. "They kept saying it was too expensive. They could have buried the line in the whole neighborhood 40 years ago for $13,000."

What's not in dispute is that the Flanums, after moving into their Oak Ridge home about 40 years ago, planted a row of pine trees on the eastern edge of their lot.

The trees were directly under the St. Croix Electric power lines that provide power to the neighborhood, but at that time the trees were too small to cause much trouble.

Fast forward a few decades, and now the trees tower above the nearby utility poles. The power line weaves its way through the branches of the 20 trees along the Flanum's property.

Mark Pendergast, president of St. Croix Electric, said all their customers receive a 16-page information booklet outlining rules about planting trees in utility right-of-ways.

"The Flanums ignored our twice-a-year mailings warning them not to plant trees within 10 feet of power lines," he said. "Now the chickens have come home to roost."

In fact, Pendergast said, the Flanums have recently planted additional pine trees under the power line on nearby rental property they own. The Flanums have been told to move the trees at least 10 feet from the power line, as required by the electrical coop's right-of-way maintenance policy.

Storm damage in the Oak Ridge neighborhood last summer shows the need to keep trees away from active electrical lines, Pendergast said.

"People were without power for days," Pendergast said.

Because St. Croix Electric is a cooperative, Pendergast said the company's 10,000 customers in St. Croix, Dunn, Polk and Pierce counties must pick up any excess costs involved in generating and delivering power to residents.

Because tree-related outages are a major problem, St. Croix Electric is working hard to clear power line right-of-ways to ensure reliability and reduce costs for years to come.

"We're getting to the root of the problem," he said.

Pendergast said the cooperative's offer to bury the power line is not excessive. The $13,000 bill covers most of the actual cost for the project.

In fact, St. Croix Electric provided a 25 percent discount in the total bill to the Flanums, Pendergast said. The discount was offered in recognition that the cooperative would have lower maintenance costs associated with an underground line than an overhead one.

"Mr. Flanum is not being asked to pay for the full cost of the line conversion," Pendergast said.

Flanum said he'd like to have a face-to-face meeting with Pendergast and all Oak Ridge neighbors to resolve the controversy. He's willing to pay some money toward burying the power lines, in order to save his trees. But he thinks the current bill is too high.

"I'm willing to pay something," he said. "The $14,000 is an excessive amount. I don't think we should have that kind of burden."

Pendergast said any cost not charged to an individual customer has be be picked up by other customers, and that's not fair.

"During the past 35 years years the other customers of St. Croix Electric have paid to trim the trees the Flanums improperly planted in the road right-of-way and within the utility maintenance area," Pendergast said. "I'm sure the other homeowners in the development have endured blinking lights and even power outages because these trees have come in contact with the power line."

Pendergast said Flanum and all other customers have St. Croix Electric Board of Directors representatives they should contact if they have complaints or concerns about the cooperative and its policies.

Customers vote for their coop representatives who help to establish practices and policies.