Beaufort officials say they realize SCE&G must resume downtown tree trimming soon and now have recommendations from the city's Tree Board that could help ease residents' concerns about pruning.
The board recommends more supervision of trimming subcontractors, shorter pruning cycles so cuts appear less severe, and a long-term plan to either bury utility lines or move them above tree canopies.
SCE&G began trimming trees along North Street, Bay Street, Ribaut Road and other downtown corridors last month as part of a five-year pruning cycle.
But the company halted work after many residents complained that trimming was being done improperly and without regard to the area's natural beauty.
"After such an upheaval, I think the (contractors) working with SCE&G know the citizens of Beaufort are going to protect their trees and won't tolerate improper pruning," Tree Board vice chairwoman Barbara Farrior said Friday. "We think we have strong recommendations that are also very doable."
SCE&G district manager David Tempel worked with Tree Board members Wednesday as they talked through possible recommendations.
SCE&G already has agreed to many of the Tree Board's suggestions, such as more supervision on trimming sites and smaller, more manageable crew sizes, he said.
For the short-term, the board recommended:
• Requiring a certified arborist contracted through the city, a city tree expert or the utility company's certified arborist to be on-site.
• Reducing the 10-foot clearance requirement between tree limbs and primary utility lines to six feet.
• Requiring all trimming crews to participate in a city-sponsored pruning training seminar before beginning work.
• Having a utility company representative on-site at all times.
• Requiring that each crew have a "top trimmer," or foreman, who has higher qualifications than were previously required.
• Limiting tree-trimming crews to no more than three bucket trucks so they are more easily managed and less obtrusive for residents.
• Having SCE&G provide to the city maps outlining daily pruning routes.
• Requiring SCE&G and its contractors to repair any tree that was improperly pruned.
As an added layer of protection, the board said that if a property owner refuses trimming, SCE&G and its contractors should skip that house and schedule a follow-up conference with the owner, the city arborist and an SCE&G certified arborist.
If an on-site arborist determines that, after pruning, a tree displays questionable viability or "grossly compromised aesthetics," SCE&G should offer to remove the tree for the property owner instead of pruning it, according to the Tree Board.
Another recommendation advocates removing palmetto trees that are next to utility lines, or if a property owner protests, cutting the trees back to their center, said Eliza Hill, city parks superintendent.
The board also recommended reducing the pruning cycle from every five years to every two years and only trimming trees from November through March when trees are dormant.
Success of the long-range goals likely will hinge on funding. The utility's five-year cycle is decided on and budgeted for at the state level by the Public Service Commission, Tempel said. Additional pruning might require the city to help cover costs, he said.
As for burying lines, residential areas are relatively inexpensive places to start, Tempel said. It probably would cost less than $80,000 to bury lines on North Street between Ribaut Road and Bay Street, he said at a meeting Wednesday. But the cost rises significantly in commercial districts, he said.
Beaufort has a franchise agreement with SCE&G that allows the city to collect 5 percent of electric revenues through residents' utility bills for future projects, such as burying lines, SCE&G spokeswoman Patricia Freshwater has said. SCE&G matches 0.5 percent of that.
The city also could consider other surcharges in neighborhoods that want to bury the lines, Mayor Billy Keyserling has said.
The Tree Board's recommendations could provide a launching point for a new pruning agreement, said Keyserling, who added he has not yet seen the list.
The Beaufort City Council is scheduled to review the recommendations Tuesday, then decide how to proceed, Keyserling said.
"We're not going to let this happen again," Keyserling said. "But I don't think we're going to find a solution overnight."