Judge grants restraining order against tree removal

Oklahoma Electric Cooperative plans to start cutting down 17 trees along Berry Road at the request

of homeowners

as part of its

vegetation

management program to protect power lines.

Kyle Phillips

The Transcript

Cleveland County District Judge Jeff Virgin granted a restraining order Friday afternoon against removing 17 long-standing trees along Berry Road.

Fourteen Norman residents filed a request for a temporary injunction so Oklahoma Electric Cooperative would not cut the trees down starting Saturday morning as previously scheduled. A Feb. 4 council study session presentation shows 11 homeowners requested removing 17 trees on Berry Road

The judge also ordered the two sides back to court 1:30 p.m. March 26 for an evidentiary hearing on the tree removal issue.

That hearing will feature arborists from OEC and the homeowners, testimony about the potential survival of the trees and public safety concerns.

"The trees get to live another day," Joe Carter, Ward 2 council member, said after the hearing. Carter, as a resident, led the charge to stop the tree removal. "I think the city of Norman won today."

Autumn McMahon, OEC spokeswoman, said the company would not do any trimming on the trees until the case is resolved.

"One of our top priorities is to be great partners to the community and the city of Norman. This tells us we have not reached that point," she said.

The plaintiffs were instructed by the judge to post a $7,500 bond by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Doug Wall, attorney for the Berry Road residents, argued removing the mature trees would cause irreparable harm and damage the value and aesthetics to the homes on Berry Road. The trees were planted by the Lion's Club in the 1960s.

"There's a great interest at play here," Wall told the judge during the hearing.

Wall said he wants to preserve the rights of the homeowners to try and save the long-standing trees.

"If the trees are cut down this weekend, we lost that right," he said. "What defines that area aesthetically is the tree canopy."

Trees on both sides of South Berry Road hang over the road, which creates the canopy appearance.

Meanwhile, OEC general counsel Greg Tontz said the company has followed Norman's tree protection ordinance.

"They [plaintiffs] are asking you to follow their own personal viewpoints," he said, noting only one of the plaintiffs appeared in court Friday. "They're not interested enough to show up here today."

Carter said after the hearing that 14 residents joined the lawsuit less than 24 hours before the case was heard in court.

"This is not our job; we are volunteers" working to protect the trees, he said.

Tontz argued delaying the tree removal would force the company to put several crews from various entities on hold.

"The law is what the law is," he told the judge. "The city has known about these trees since December. The court has to deal with the law it has. There is nothing on the city council agenda to change the law."

Carter later said the tree ordinance has been added to the city's March 12 Oversight Committee agenda and should be on track for an A City Council vote to "shore up the language."

Tontz also told Virgin that 12 of the 17 trees have been deemed diseased by three arborists, and five are considered dangerous trees that pose potential safety hazards, including damage from ice storms, tornadoes and fires that can occur when branches are ignited by the electrical lines.

"The [electrical] distribution line has been there a lot longer than the trees," the OEC attorney said.

Tontz also told the judge he heard that some Norman residents would chain themselves to the trees if the restraining order wasn't granted.

Wall blamed OEC for the condition of the trees, claiming the tree trimming that occurs every few years created the diseased conditions.

"We're not asking you to not cut them down but don't cut them down just now," he said. "This [tree canopy] is a shining light in this area."

Both sides agreed that this is the first real test of Norman's tree ordinance that was created in 2017 after a similar battle over removing trees on Berry Road.

McMahon said there has to middle ground between the two sides.

"I believe there is some misinformation which this extra time will allow us to clear up," she said.

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