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IPL: Changing tree-trimming policy could cost utility $100M

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Indianapolis Power & Light Co. says changes to its controversial tree-trimming policies could cost the utility—and ultimately ratepayers—$100 million.

The eye-popping figure is buried in mounds of documents submitted as part of an evidentiary hearing conducted this month by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which is reviewing IPL's policies. The three-day hearing, held in response to complaints that regulators received from homeowners who say IPL is too aggressive when trimming trees near power lines, concluded Friday.

A ruling requiring IPL to change its tree-trimming procedures would “cripple” the company, Barnes & Thornburg attorney Teresa Morton asserted in case documents.

“A total cost of $100 million or more is easily conceivable,” wrote Morton, who is representing IPL in the case. “Not only would such an eventuality strike a crippling blow to IPL’s efforts to maintain a safe and reliable system through its current well-developed approach to tree trimming and removal, it would likewise be a crippling financial blow to IPL, ultimately borne by customers.”

The $100 million is an estimate of what it would cost IPL to purchase utility easements from as many as 400,000 customers in order to properly trim or remove trees interfering with power lines, Morton said.

IPL is the only regulated electric utility in the state that has a written clause in its charter, or tariff, allowing it to enter private property and trim or remove trees without the homeowner’s permission.

An IURC administrative law judge heard testimony from both sides during the hearing and will decide later whether IPL keeps its current tariff. The IURC is accepting post-hearing briefs—similar to closing arguments in a normal trial—until the end of May.

In December, the group of homeowners that filed the complaint against IPL won a partial victory when the IURC temporarily prohibited the utility from shearing trees without consent.

The group wants the IURC to make the temporary order permanent and to set uniform trimming guidelines that every utility would need to follow. One of the group’s biggest complaints is that IPL trims well outside the existing easements on which the trees are planted, said lawyer Jerry Polk, who represents the homeowners.

“When [IPL is] sending out crews to do routine maintenance, [it] should get the property owner’s consent; that’s the big sticking point,” Polk said. “The other is how far [crews] can go in [a property], and it’s inconsistent from utility to utility.”

Representatives of the other large, state-regulated utilities—Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power; Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy; Merrillville-based Northern Indiana Public Service Co.; and Evansville-based Vectren Corp.—attended the evidentiary hearing as well.

Polk argued that those utilities are more willing to compromise with homeowners to avoid disfiguring trees and, in some instances, will even remove problem trees and plant replacements in another part of a homeowner’s property.

IPL countered in an e-mailed statement that its tree-trimming policy is critical to continuing safe delivery of electricity.

“This is an important matter before the commission, as significant changes to IPL's vegetation-management process could potentially be costly to our customers,” the utility said. “IPL's obligation to provide safe, reliable service requires maintaining proper clearances around power lines, and tree trimming is crucial to the continued delivery of this vital service.”

The debate surrounding IPL’s tree-trimming efforts stems from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2002 by nine Driftwood Hills residents who complained that IPL purposely defaced their northeast-side neighborhood by mauling trees touching power lines.

An agreement reached through mediation directed IPL to contact homeowners four months in advance of a scheduled pruning. Company representatives also are to meet with homeowners to explain the process and options if trimming is not desired.

Even so, Charles Goodman, whose complaint against IPL helped launch the IURC investigation, said he arrived home in 2005 to find one side of a sugar maple tree lopped off.

“I didn’t realize when I started this that it would get so damn big,” the 69-year-old said. “Why should a nobody like myself, a retired senior citizen, be the one to find this stuff out and expose it?”

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  • Tree trimmer refused to properly answers questions and RECORDED everything on my property without my permission
    [This is most of the report I made to IPL today.]
    A guy showed up claiming to work for IPL. I had requested to be informed of the details of any tree trimming. As I was coming out of the house, the guy punched something into his cellphone and left it on pointing in my direction the entire time. The guy was evasive and said he could not explain what he was going to do because I "was not an arborist". At that point, I didn't believe that HE was an arborist. I did not appreciate his arrogant attitude AT ALL. It wasn't until after he left that I realized HE HAD BEEN RECORDING ME ON MY PROPERTY WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. THAT IS ILLEGAL! I called his supervisor and reported it, but believe me, this will not end here.

    An illegal act was committed against me by a so-called IPL employee on my own property. His words and tone did not match his face and body language. I am disabled and walking to the back of my property was incredibly difficult and painful. And to suffer that for nothing but evasion and attitude is outrageous! The recording is insulting, invasive and electronic rape! It could end up anywhere. There will be consequences! You cannot send someone to commit a crime on my property. You cannot commit such a blatant invasion of my privacy. Telephone calls will be made and letters written. I will look for a young, hungry attorney looking to make a name for himself.
  • outraged
    My daughter was playing in her grandmothers back yard with another child when 2 guys walk in there leave the gate wide open and start trimming a tree right above their heads my daughter is 4 with a mental disability. the guys didn't notify the grandmother that they was going back there like the paper stated they would. There was also 2 dogs in the backyard when the guys left they left the back gate wide open. How can they do that and put a child's life in danger and nothing happen?
  • me too
    and I think that they contract illegal immigrants to do this
  • Find a better way!
    I don't know how IPL got permission to enter private property w/out permission of owners but this year it really ticked me off. Yes, I have come to expect the sound of the whirring saws each spring but usually the tree guys do not enter my enclosed back yard.
    This year I came home from a doctor appt. to find at least 8 men standing around in my back yard. Fortunately, my son was home so the dog could be kept in the house. Otherwise my dog would either have run out the gates they opened or been hurt because I saw these guys taunting the dogs in the neighborhood.
    I am so upset now that I can hardly type coherently. Usually I am alone at home and to have a group of men ascend upon my private area is frankly, frightening, to me. I am ill and a situation like this is extremely hard on me.
    Right now I am at a loss as to what I can do so this is set right but you can be sure that IPL or SOMEone will be brought to task! It's not that I don't understand the need for maintenance. It's the way it's being done that upsets me. Not only the intrusion on my privacy but the trees end up looking like crap and some are even in more dangerous shape now than before being trimmed! FIND A BETTER WAY!!
  • Citizen Awareness
    I was riding my bicycle this week and noticed a elderly man working in his driveway and I was curious as to what he was doing. I spoke with him and upon doing so learned his story that led me here. Mr Goodman seams like a nice enough fellow and he showed me the tree that IPL trimmed or where it used to be. He also showed me his nieghbors tree and a few others in the area close to power lines that had been trimmed. These trees are a sore sight! The trees along the power line are almost destroyed although the are still growing. Imagine a tornado coming through your yard and taking off one third of its major branches! Now I know the trees propose a problem in some cases but it was obvious to me that this was overkill in a big way. If I had to estimate the distance from the power lines to the area where the trees were cut by IPL it would be about 20 feet in a few cases. Would 10 feet be enough? Could the trimmers be more considerate of the property owners tree at the same time staying within the guidelines for this matter Or are there any guidelines? Well I was told by Mr Goodman that the whole trimming guideline put in place by IPL was put there illegally. If this is so the public should be notified and have a say so in the matter. After all it is there property! How can IPL do as they please? Now they want to raise taxes to do this? I know this rests upon one mans statement to me but I have seen the trees and they are a eye sore. Please lets think about the tax payer.

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