Out along Bridgetown Road in Green Township there are about five houses that have been inadvertently thrust into the firewood business. It wasn't the homeowners' idea, but thanks to crews contracted by Duke Energy -- for all intents and purposes Greater Cincinnati's sole energy provider -- the trees in their front yards were reduced to stumps.
The remains of those trees were cut into 3-foot chunks and left in the yards to rot. The workers were off to the next clear-cutting project somewhere else.
These quintessential suburban houses are pretty typical for this part of town. The big difference in this case would be extremely large front yards that give their properties an oblong shape. Draped perpendicular to the yards are large high voltage lines that deliver electricity to untold numbers of users around, well, probably pretty much all of North America, give or take an amp here or there.
Therein lies the problem. In the wake of the power outrages that struck the eastern U.S. in 2003, new regulations were put in place that require trees and other vegetation be at least 20 feet from those lines. That way nothing can touch the lines and cause half the country to short circuit like a cheap transistor radio.
Needless to say, the Green Township folks who left home in the morning with big, beautiful trees and came home to a ready-made campfire weren't pleased with what they saw.
They in turn complained to their township trustees and The Cincinnati Enquirer, which published a couple stories about the situation. Local television stations also gave the controversy some air time.
Several residents even put signs in their front yard telling Duke workers they'd need a court order to enter their property. It was an ugly scene.
Some area residents told The Enquirer they felt the energy company -- which has a monopoly in this region despite deregulation -- was trying to trim not only their trees but the company's expenses as well. If Duke reduced those pesky trees to stumps, they said, it would be a while before they grew their way up to the point of needing another clipping.
Duke officials told The Enquirer they needed to "do a better job communicating to their customers" and disputed that the clear cuts had anything to do with saving money. The work, in fact, was a customer service that would ensure power makes it over the lines during the blazingly hot summer months.
It bothers lots of people here, including me, that everyday citizens are unable to really stand up to a corporation like Duke. Not that it necessarily made a huge difference, but before North Carolina-based Duke bought Cinergy, the former Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co., the utility company was locally-based. The people CG&E were ticking off were more likely their neighbors, and they probably were a bit more respectful of whose trees they were knocking down.
You can't turn back time. It's doubtful that Duke is going to sell this area's gas and electric utility to anyone local, much less turn it into a truly public utility similar to the "best practices" example set by the Sacramento Municipal Utility Company, which is owned by citizens.
But there is a lesson to be learned from all of this. Sources have told me on more than one occasion that Cincinnati Bell Telephone, one of the few phone companies that hasn't sold out to a telecomunications conglomerate, has quietly been making plans to sell itself in the coming years. That probably doesn't come as a surprise given the huge hits the company has taken thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, which has all but stomped out the need for home phones, the company's bread-and-butter cash generator. Toss in competitors like the cable TV telephone service and the nifty online alternative Skype, and the future doesn't look good.
When it does come time for another public monopoly to sell off for big windfalls for its top brass and shareholders, it might be worth asking some serious questions. Who will be accountable to the people in Green Township, Over-the-Rhine, Bellevue, Silverton and Oakley? I'm afraid it won't be many unless we speak up.
Duke officials did respond to the tree-cutting situation on the West Side after politicians got involved and the media shined light on the issue. But it should never take that kind of action.
The root of all manners is civility. No matter what the bottom line says, everyone should remember that.
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