Utilities get state guidelines for trimming trees
Posted: 07/15/2012 at 1:15 am
By: Marilyn Odendahl
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission announced the rule July 11 after several years of review. During that time, the agency held six public field hearings to collect testimony from customers in different service territories, including Fort Wayne and Merrillville.
Through the extensive examination of the controversial topic, the commission stated it sought to provide consistency by standardizing the tree-trimming process among utilities across the state, including Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and Indiana Michigan Power.
Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley, forester for the city of Goshen, believes the statewide guidelines covering all utilities may help the public feel someone is listening to their concerns and that they have someone to appeal to during a dispute.
However, he does not expect the standards to ease the tension between the power companies and property owners. Customers get angry over tree trimming for sentimental and aesthetic reasons which, he said, shows they care about their property and their community.
“For me personally, I tend to sympathize first with the property owner and want to try to advocate with them for the life of the tree,” Sawatsky-Kingsley said. “But I also have to recognize that without service provided by the energy company, we don’t have our city.”
The IURC has set a rule that prohibits the utilities from topping trees or removing more than 25 percent without the homeowner’s consent unless in an emergency. In addition, power companies must:
• notify customers two times at least two weeks before trimming is scheduled.
• provide details about the trimming process and why it is necessary.
If a customer objects to the proposed plan within five days of receiving the notice, the utility must refrain from trimming until the issue is addressed. Finally, in cases where a tree must be removed, an agreement may be reached enabling the customer to be compensated.
Electric companies trim the trees near power lines to prevent outages. Yet, in the case of I&M, the storm that swept across Northern Indiana on June 29 would probably have caused the same amount of damage regardless of the new state standards.
The strong winds that accompanied the storm toppled trees onto electric cables, knocking out power to 121,000 customers, according to spokesman David Mayne. However, the new standards would not have lessened the impact because many of those trees that fell were outside the right-of-way, the area near the power lines where the power companies are only permitted to trim.
“No amount of vegetation management is going to completely protect an electric management system,” Mayne said. “If a storm as powerful as the one we had a couple of weeks ago comes along, there’s going to be outages.”
Mayne emphasized that I&M is already doing many of the things the new state standard requires. ASawatsky-Kingsley noted NIPSCO has been more responsive to customer concerns, although he conceded that the company should do more education.
Property owners are often shocked by the appearance of trees after they have been trimmed by the utilities, Sawatsky-Kingsley said. A tree can look awful afterwards but that does not mean it has been damaged. NIPSCO, he said, is careful about cutting in a way that gives the tree the best chance of healing.
“Even though it looks bad, they’re doing the right kind of thing for the situation,” Sawatsky-Kingsley said.
The IURC’s final rule must still undergo an administrative review process through the state government. This review is expected to be completed by the fall.