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Officials Delay Decision On Fate of UI's Ambitious Tree-Cutting Plan

According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, PURA will now delay their decision on United Illuminating's ambitious tree-cutting plan past Wednesday, January 29, due to a public hearing request from UI to discuss "technical issues."

At the core of UI's plan is a simple rule, if a tree falls within eight feet of one of UI's poles or wires, it will be subject to trimming or removal. (That eight foot area actually extends to either side of overhead electric lines, from ground to sky.) The utility says more cutting is necessary following recent severe weather and ice storms, which knocked down trees, blocked roads, and left hundreds of thousands without power.

Joseph Thomas, UI's vice president of electric system operations, said UI's plan is in response to demands from both the state and rate payers. "Bottom line is," he said, "we have to collectively strike a balance around trimming the trees, removing the trees, reliability, and safety."

UI has already initiated a pilot phase of its plan, tagging or trimming trees in select communities like Shelton and Hamden. But Thomas said that as long as a tree isn't in direct contact with an energized conductor, it can't be removed without the go-ahead from a town tree warden or a private property owner. 

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Credit United Illuminating
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UI's said its tree-trimming plan would be phased in gradually and begin by targeting trees near "critical facilities" like hospitals and fuel distribution centers. It's expected to cost $100 million.

On Wednesday, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority is expected to issue a final decision on whether UI can move forward with its full plan. Last week, PURA's delayed its decision, in part, due to concerns voiced by conservationists and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

"The trees become a very, very important part of our everyday daily lives," said Bob Pattison of Hamden Alliance for Trees. "Unlike the trees in the woods, which are kind of static, the trees that line our streets are very important for all kinds of reasons -- shade and comfort." 

Pattison said UI's plan is too ambitious and too aggressive. "We understand there are dead and dying trees. We understand there are problem trees all through Connecticut in relation to lines," he said. "We think we need a more balanced approach and UI needs a more balanced approach to how they are going to do this. If you read the fine print in their plan it's not a balanced approach at all -- it's just cut and remove."

Earlier this month, Susan Whalen from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issued a letter calling for a more flexible tree-cutting plan from UI. "The utility's proposal to use Enhanced Tree Trimming as the standard utility line clearance policy completely ignores the varying characteristics of the state's roadways and land uses," Whalen wrote. 

If approved by PURA, UI said its trimming would span eight years and cost $100 million.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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