DTE Energy and a tree-trimming company face a $54 million lawsuit after a lawyer claims they followed a "secret scorched earth" policy for cutting growth along power lines.
Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger filed the suits on behalf of property owners in Bloomfield Hills, saying the power company had "clear cut hundreds of century-old hardwood trees."
That program, called the Ground to Sky campaign, involved cutting work performed by Davey Tree, a Kent, Ohio-based tree removal company, along with its local subsidiary, North Detroit Tree Service, Fieger said in a statement Wednesday.
Tree trimming along utility lines is a hot topic among homeowners, utility customers and others. Utilities try to keep power lines clear of branches that can snap during storms, cutting power to thousands. At the same time, customers demand reliable service but blanch at unsightly trees sliced off at the top or sides or chopped down altogether near lines.
Fieger filed three lawsuits in Oakland Circuit Court, claiming the program began in December, affecting the properties of 20 landowners on Kensington Road before it was halted by the township.
"DTE and Davey had absolutely no authority to clear-cut trees or to convert the trees as their own property," Fieger said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Since the carnage, DTE has been secretly trying to settle with property owners."
Some of the trees were cut on the property of the Academy of the Sacred Heart on Kensington, which has enjoyed its 46 tree-covered acres since opening its doors more than a half-century ago.
"There were two issues and problems," said Sister Bridget Bearss, preparing for the school's open house event this weekend. "We have had power outages and they can be difficult. We even went to officials about needing predictable power. Tree limbs can knock out power, so we understand and appreciate that.
"But we never expected them to cut down all those beautiful trees in front of the school. They provided a pleasing and protective barrier for our students. Many of the students are asking 'why did they cut down our trees?' You try to explain it to them but it's hard."
Bearss said she did not know what the school's next step will be, including whether to replant the removed trees.
DTE spokesman Scott Simons said Wednesday afternoon that the company had not yet seen the court filing and could not comment directly on it.
"Our vegetation management program is done on a year-round basis for improved electric service reliability and the safety of our customers," he said. "We follow Michigan Public Service Commission and National Arborist Association guidelines when we work with trees and notify our customers before doing so.
"We've been working with officials on Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township and will continue to work with all the communities we serve to let them know when we (will be performing work)."
State regulators in May ordered DTE Energy and Consumers Power to implement new efforts, including expanded tree-trimming efforts outside utility easements, to assure power service to customers.
The report came in the wake of days without power for thousands of Michiganians around Christmas 2013 after a widespread ice storm hit a large part of the state.
North Detroit Tree Service referred questions to Davey Tree, but an official with the Ohio company could not be reached for comment.
Homeowner Inge Gray was upset by the tree trimming in her neighborhood near Kensington.
"We moved out here four years ago because I love the area and loved the woods," said Gray who lives on Dover Drive. She said tree trimming crews entered a forested area behind her house from the rear of her property.
"I couldn't believe what they did," she said. "They had said they planned to do some trimming but they cut a 50-foot-wide channel behind our back yard and took down dozens of trees — hardwood, pine, black locus — of various sizes.
"I've seen power companies do trimming before but have never seen anything like it. Trimming is cutting back branches that pose a problem to electrical lines not wholesale clear-cutting and removal of trees."
Gray estimates many of the trees approached or exceeded 100 years in age.
"One of their (DTE) people came out and told me that the trees were in or near their right-of-way easement and that they planned to keep doing it."