Citizen lobbyist fights tree topping

By Maureen Hayden
Indianapolis, IN (February 7, 2011)- Six years ago, Charles Goodman was unhappy when a utility crew lopped the top of a tree located near a power line in his front yard. So, he helped launch a fight that culminated last year in a major victory when state regulators issued a 111-page ruling that restricts the tree-trimming practices of Indiana utilities.

Among other things, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission order forbids the investor-owned electric utilities from topping trees or removing more than 25 percent of a tree’s canopy without the property owner’s consent.
But Goodman’s fight isn’t over. Worried about an ongoing legal battle over the IURC ruling, the co-founder of the Indiana Tree Alliance is pushing for legislation that would give state regulators more power in tree-trimming disputes and empower property owners with more rights. At 70 and in ill health, the man who calls himself a “volunteer citizen lobbyist” is working to convince lawmakers in the Indiana Statehouse to act soon. “If I have to come in here on a gurney with IVs attached to me, I will,” said Goodman. “Six years is a long time to be fighting this fight.”
The timing presents a challenge. With a two-year budget to balance and so much major legislation already on their agenda, lawmakers may not have the time or inclination to take on the issue. And, as the author of a bill that would address some of tree-trimming practices notes, the winter storm that shut down much of the state last week illustrates the dilemma: Power outages across the state were caused in part by ice-covered tree limbs falling on nearby utility lines.
“The utilities have a responsibility to provide service and to make sure that service isn’t interrupted,” said state Sen. Jean Breaux, a Democrat from Indianapolis. “Still, we think they can do it in a more responsible way.” Utilities have varied in their tree-trimming practices and policies, with some more willing than others to reach agreements with property owners, Breaux said. But they’ve also argued that they need to retain the right to clear trees near power lines to ensure electricity will stay on during storms.
The IURC order issued late last year imposed more-uniform standards for how utilities manage vegetation near power lines. It also set up a process for rule-making to resolve a number of issues related to how the utilities will resolve and prevent disputes over their tree-trimming practices. That rule-making process is ongoing, and a public meeting to solicit testimony on the rules is scheduled for Friday in Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, there is a legal dispute before the Indiana Court of Appeals. Goodman sees the court fight as a setback, but his supporters argue that his efforts helped build a coalition that compelled legislators to push the IURC into getting involved in the issue.
“He’s a good example of what one person can do if you have determination and tenacity,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, a political watchdog group. “He’s the textbook example of how one person can make a whole lot of difference.”
Related Resource:
The Tribune-Star- ‘Citizen lobbyist’ fights tree topping