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Local legislators want to hold utility companies responsible for vegetation damage to properties

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  June 29, 2012 04:46 PM

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Local legislators are responsible for a measure passed by the state House of Representatives that would hold utility companies responsible for the removal and cutting of trees and other vegetation in routine safety pruning.

The provision would require the utilities to replace any damaged trees and plants already cut this year.

The amendment follows complaints in the past month from local residents and town officials who say the cutting has spun out of control, with utility companies not communicating properly, removing and hacking at vegetation, and consequently affecting property values.

An NStar representative said the tree work is required by law and needed to prevent power outages.

The House-passed amendment would require utility companies to file their vegetation paring plans with the state Department of Public Utilities, who will review plans every four years, work with the companies to tweak the proposals, and hold public hearings prior to plan approval.

The amendment would also require utility companies to provide 60 days notice to any affected property owners, public or private, unless facing an emergency situation.

It would also require utility companies to replant vegetation workers have recently uprooted, grind any tree stumps they have created, and restore plants and trees to the original aesthetic before they were affected by pruning and cutting between January 2012 and January 2014.

The legislation also includes a complaint process for any company's non-compliance.

"This amendment really addresses the crux of the problems with the clear-cutting of the easements that have so traumatized homeowners,” said state Representative Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat. “We were looking to create assurances that residents would not be faced with the loss of quality of their environment or home values due to insensitive transmission line maintenance.”

NStar representatives said that cutting down unruly vegetation near electric lines is federally and regionally mandated, and is required from company guidelines to keep power lines safe.

Additionally, trees falling on power lines is the top cause of power outages for the 1.1 million NStar customers, said Caroline Pretyman, an NStar spokesperson.

"If we have one issue where a tree has the potential to fall on a line, it could affect tens of thousands of people," Pretyman said.

In fact, since last year's Tropical Storm Irene and October snow storm, more municipalities have been asking the company to clear overgrown trees, Pretyman said.

"It's a balancing act," she said.

Pretyman also said there is documentation in property deeds acknowledging that utility companies have the right to traverse the property for pruning.

"The utility has a right of way, or easement, allowing them to go on the property and keep it clear for our equipment, which has gone as far back as those trees have been there," she said.

However, homeowners in Framingham and other local areas have raised complaints in the past few months over utility companies like NStar failing to communicate when they started mowing, trimming, or removing plants and trees.

Joshua Mulready, co-president of the Oaks Neighborhood Association in Framingham, said he noticed Reardon Park looked different as he took his son there one afternoon around Memorial Day this year.

"We noticed many trees had been cut and the park didn’t look like it used to," Mulready said, adding that he feared the local beach would also receive a sharp hacking by the end of the season.

He said in the past, NStar would tell residents via written notices in advance what pruning they sought to do, but this year proved different.

"Some people had placards saying that NStar will trim branches off their pine tree, but then the pine tree would be gone," Mulready said. "No one was given the proper communication lines, and a lot of people are upset."

Mulready said the residents understand the utility companies have to clear the electricity lines to keep them safe, but still grow weary with NStar's lack of notification and communication.

"No one wants to lose power," he said. "We’re not trying to stop from those lines being safe, we just want utilities to take time to communicate and set up remediation."

Pretyman also said NStar had a certified arborist go door-to-door and talk with customers whose property was on the right of way to let them know about the cutting. She said the company also notified each of the towns before beginning work.

However, Mulready said he is pleased with the amendment, and lauded town and state officials working with residents and the utility companies to improve the process.

"I think this amendment will help by saying, 'Slow down and get communications out,' so we don’t have this fiasco happen again," he said.

State Representative Tom Conroy, a Wayland Democrat, said the House has made good progress on the legislation, which should in turn help residents in Framingham, Wayland, and Sudbury whose property values have been damaged from NStar's cutting on their property.

"We will continue to push for this amendment to become law so that those who have lost trees, shrubs, and other vegetation in their yards will receive at least partial restoration of their property and the values of their homes," Conroy said.

State Representative Tom Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat, agreed.

“Replacing the trees and plant life that’s been lost is important to the quality of life in our community," Sannicandro said.

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