By Justin L. Mack
Lafayette, IN (August 29, 2009)- West Lafayette resident Lawrence Smith said it is easy to tell when trees on his street have been trimmed to make way for utility lines. “You can see the shorter and sometimes broken branches near the power lines,” said Smith, who has been living in a rental property on Littleton Street for the past two years. “I’m sure the trees were here before the power lines, so they should find ways to work around them instead of hacking branches.
“I don’t own the house or the trees, but it just makes it look bad.” Complaints such as Smith’s have led state officials to investigate the tree-removal and tree-trimming practices of Indiana’s utilities to determine whether they are too aggressive.
In April, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission completed an investigation of electric utility tree trimming practices. A series of public hearings to discuss the commission’s findings will start Monday in Muncie.
“Right now there is no prejudged outcome for the hearings, and it is an excellent opportunity for citizens to give their opinions as we continue to gather information,” said Danielle Dravet, Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission spokeswoman. “The utilities were asked to answer a list of questions during the investigation, and they have all been very responsive.”
Questions presented to utilities related to the training and certification of tree trimmers, clearance distances, tree-trimming cycles, replacement of trees that are cut down, why tree-trimming practices became more aggressive in the past five years and other topics. “After the last hearing is conducted, we will try to figure out the best way to proceed,” Dravet said.
Charlie Goodman, an Indianapolis homeowner whose complaint led to the commission’s investigation, acknowledges that tall-growing trees near power lines are not compatible and need to be trimmed or removed. But he accuses the utility companies of “going to extremes” in recent years, causing millions of dollars in damage to trees without good reason and without just compensation to home-owners. “Since they’ve been given a free hand by the IURC, the utilities feel they can do just about anything they want,” Goodman said.
Duke Energy has been trimming trees around Greater Lafayette power lines in recent days. Duke spokeswoman Angeline Protogere said the trimming is something the company does every few years to prevent limbs from falling on lines and causing outages. “We are glad to participate in the hearings and we always like hearing from customers in the area,” she said.
Protogere said if changes are made by the state, the rules should be different for each utility. “Our service area covers about 22,000 square miles, and a lot of that area is rural, so we deal with more trees than companies in more urban areas,” she said. “We don’t feel there should be one standard, because all utilities have very different service areas. “Our main priorities are safety and reliability, and we have met those priorities. I don’t feel there is a need for change.”
Larry Rose is president of Tree Lafayette, a volunteer organization that helps plant and maintain trees in public rights of way. He said he was surprised the investigation was being conducted. “The fact that they’re even having the hearing is a miracle,” he said. “A lot of people are very unhappy.”
Rose, who lives in the Wildcat Valley Estates subdivision east of Interstate 65, said to solve the tree trimming disputes, utilities should be placed underground throughout the city. “That’s how it’s done where I live, and we don’t have any of the problems,” he said.
Rose said that as long as the state allows overhead utilities, residents should be careful where they plant new trees. “It’s all about being preventative and getting help,” he said. “You have to plant the right tree at the right place to make sure you don’t get near any power lines.”
While some might be unhappy with the current policies, others think the trimming is beneficial. “We really haven’t had any problems with the trimming at all,” said Lindberg Road resident Juan Dominguez. He has several branches that touch power lines on his lawn. “In fact, it would be kind of nice if they would clean up the branches a little. They get tangled in the lines a lot.”
Journal & Courier- Utilities’ tree-trimming practices examined