SRP, Phoenix neighborhood find palm-tree solution

Rare palms too near power lines

by Ryan Randazzo
The Arizona Republic

Salt River Project has mostly resolved the conflict in an east Phoenix neighborhood where rare black-sphinx date palms growing close to power lines threaten to cause fires or blackouts.

A year ago, SRP offered several residents in the Mountgrove subdivision in the Arcadia area $100 each to remove their trees, but many balked because they prize the heirloom date palms, which are not found in a grove anywhere else.

Now, SRP is offering them $1,000 for any black-sphinx tree near power lines that homeowners allow the utility to remove. SRP also is offering the option to relocate them within the neighborhood for free, or to trim them twice annually at the utility’s expense for five years, after which the owners will have to pick up the tab.

However, some of the residents whose trees are too close to the high-voltage lines can’t get that third offer, said Gordon Lind, principal ombudsman in the consumer-affairs group at SRP.

“It is a very unique situation,” Lind said. “SRP doesn’t typically pay customers for trees. This is really unprecedented, especially on the scale of a whole community.”

SRP found 61 palms close enough to power lines to be a concern, with some homeowners having two or three problem trees on their property.

After a year of negotiations and increased offers, SRP has signed agreements with all of the homeowners to take one of the three options, Lind said.

But one resident agreed to have his tree relocated, and SRP’s contractor has since determined that it can’t get a large enough crane into the area to do that, so the tree must be removed. SRP has not heard a response from that resident, Lind said.

SRP has the right to cut the top of any tree that threatens its power lines, but utility officials wanted to be more tactful in this neighborhood because the trees are so rare.

Propagating black-sphinx palms is difficult, and only a few are thought to have survived anywhere outside Arcadia, according to the book “Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods” by nature writer Gary Paul Nabhan. The trees originated from a single seedling found in 1928 at a Phoenix plantation that had imported several varieties from the Middle East more than a decade earlier, according to the book. Thousands of the trees were propagated, but few remain today, most of them in Arcadia.

“They are pretty exceptional — arguably the best-tasting dates in the world,” said Harry Polk, a sharecropper who tends to many of the trees in Mountgrove, selling the valuable dates to specialty stores like the Black Sphinx Date Ranch on Scottsdale Road and to Whole Foods Market.

“I don’t know of another standing grove anywhere else,” he said. “I know of another tree here or there, but not a grove.”

Polk said that photos of the neighborhood from 1955 when the homes were constructed show the palms to be the size of large bushes, indicating the grove was probably planted around 1940.

Polk is raising some of the trees in a nursery. Trees grown from the seeds of black-sphinx palms will not create the same fruit as the parent tree, so the only way to replicate the same prized fruit is to cultivate an offshoot from an adult tree, he said. Once the trees reach a certain age, they stop producing those offshoots.

He also said that the trees need lots of water, which they get from flood irrigation in Mountgrove, or they will not produce good fruit.

SRP’s elected president, David Rousseau, met multiple times with representatives from the neighborhood before the utility increased its offer from $100 per tree to remove them, Lind said.

Utility officials originally didn’t want to give the neighborhood residents special treatment, because the expenses are paid by all utility customers.

Normally, SRP simply cuts trees under its lines without engaging homeowners unless the utility needs access to the property to cut the tree.

“I think everybody is extremely pleased with the offers they came back with,” said Dick Malone, president of the property-owners association in Mountgrove. “They admitted this was very much a unique situation, especially because it affected the grove and because of the value of the trees.”

Malone said that property owners felt slighted by SRP at first because of the low offers, but after the negotiations they felt they had been treated fairly.

Some people still are concerned that, like one homeowner, they might not be able to relocate their trees once contractors try to reach them with a crane and they will have to be killed.

The issue in the neighborhood arose shortly after SRP changed its trimming policies. SRP previously trimmed trees enough to keep them a safe distance from power lines for at least two years. Then in 2010 it changed its practice, cutting trees farther so they had to be pruned only every three years. That move saves the utility about $700,000 annually.

SRP officials said that change didn’t affect the Mountgrove black-sphinx trees much because they have grown too close to the power lines regardless of the schedule change. Their fronds grow so fast they often need trimming twice annually, and the utility didn’t want other customers footing the bill for frequent trimming in the neighborhood.

But for residents who have chosen to keep their trees, SRP will continue to pay about $300 per tree once or twice a year to trim the trees for five years, with the residents agreeing they will pay that additional cost after that. SRP does not guarantee that cost, paid to a contractor, will not rise by the time residents take over the payments.

Others are taking the offer to remove the trees for free and get $1,000, which they can spend as they please.

At least one family is taking the opportunity to have the trees relocated for free to another neighbor’s yard in the same neighborhood, Lind said, while others are moving them in their own yards away from power lines.

“I would say, very honestly, we weren’t too sure what the reaction was going to be, but we had to move forward on this project,” Lind said of the increased offers. “The majority of the community has commented that they appreciate SRP has gone to great lengths to not disrupt the neighborhood and has recognized the historic nature and value of these trees.”

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