June 25, 2014
PURA Finalizes Ruling on Utility Tree Trimming Plans
Connecticut's Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) today issued a final ruling modifying the Connecticut Light & Power Company's (CL&P) and the United Illuminating Company's (UI) tree trimming and vegetation management practices. The decision sets new guidelines that fairly balance the environmental, aesthetic, and economic value that trees add to communities with the need for effective tree trimming practices to ensure reliable utility service.
The PURA initiated its review pursuant to Governor Dannel P. Malloy's multi-pronged storm disaster preparedness and recovery initiatives. Major storms in 2011 and 2012 underscored the importance of tree management along the state’s heavily forested roadways and other rights-of-way. 80% of the power outages during those major storms resulted from tree and limb contact with utility poles and wires, and downed trees and limbs in roadways delayed storm recovery efforts.
The decision caps a lengthy review that included multiple public hearings and substantial input from stakeholders including the Office of Consumer Counsel, the Office of the Attorney General, the major utilities, local elected officials, property owners, and forest management professionals.
CL&P and UI - who manage tree trimming programs in public rights-of-way through private tree contractors - have recently stepped up tree trimming programs to make Connecticut's utility infrastructure more resilient to storm damage, and to promote shorter restoration time following weather-related outages. Over the next five years, CL&P is expected to spend $314M for vegetation maintenance; UI is set to spend $100M over eight years.
The ruling emphasizes sensitivity to local concerns and encourages flexibility in achieving utility reliability requirements while maintaining the aesthetic appeal of tree and other vegetation as much as possible. The PURA ruling directs the utility companies to use solutions other than outright removal of vegetation whenever conditions permit.
The utilities modified their routine and "enhanced" tree trimming (ETT) plans in response to recent changes in Connecticut law and in response to concerns expressed by local officials and citizens. For work to be performed under the new standards, the utility must consider the diversity of vegetation in urban, suburban and rural areas in determining the necessary pruning required to ensure reliability. No tree will be pruned or removed by utility contractors without the issuance of a permit from the local tree warden.
Today's ruling also sets new standards to improve communication between municipalities and utilities regarding planned enhanced tree trimming activities. CL&P and UI must develop and share a schedule of ETT work activities planned to be completed in each municipality so scheduled tree work can be better coordinated with local cities and towns.
Legislation signed into law by Governor Malloy earlier this month prohibits utilities from pruning or removing any non-hazardous tree or shrub within or overhanging a set area around poles and wires without providing advance notice to abutting property owners. Such notice must include an option for the property owner to consent or object to the pruning or removal, and an opportunity to modify the utility's proposal. The notice will give property owners ten business days to raise concerns, and ultimately to appeal to PURA if the matter cannot be resolved.
The PURA decision requires UI and CL&P to initiate discussions with Connecticut's major telecommunications companies to resolve cost sharing issues associated with tree trimming and vegetation management. AT&T and Verizon solely or jointly own many of the more than 858,000 poles throughout Connecticut, but CL&P and UI contend that the telecommunications companies and other pole attachers do not fully reimburse them for maintenance and pruning costs that they incur.
PURA Commissioner John W. Betkoski, III, who led the panel of PURA commissioners assigned to this case and was today re-elected as PURA's vice-chairman, stated that "recent changes in Connecticut law together with improvements we are ordering in today's decision provide a fair balance among customer concerns, costs, safety, infrastructure reliability and faster restoration of service due to major storms."
PURA Commissioner Michael A. Caron acknowledged "the many parties and members of the public who shared opinions and insights into this proceeding, including the State Vegetation Management Task Force established by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection."
Arthur H. House, who today was re-elected to serve as PURA's Chairperson, concurred by adding that "this ruling establishes guidance necessary to improve utility infrastructure resiliency in the face of increasingly severe weather, while building in sufficient flexibility to accommodate local concerns, enabling resolution of potential disputes."