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PURA Issues Final Decision on Tree Trimming

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Patrick Skahill / WNPR
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"The utility company cannot unilaterally remove a tree, period, without the consent of the homeowner."<br><em>Jack Betkoski</em>

Connecticut has a lot of trees. Our state leads the nation on this piece of technical jargon from the state forester, "woodland urban interface tree density." That means two things -- one: Connecticut has a lot of old, towering, trees -- and two, when major storms, like the ones in 2011 and 2012, hit those trees can be really vulnerable.

"I saw trees uprooted. I saw trees down on wires. I saw people complaining because we weren't getting the power restored," said Jack Betkoski, Vice Chairman of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. "But with that being said, I also realize -- I'm a lifelong New Englander -- the beauty of our trees."

Under the new tree trimming guidelines, Betkoski said there's one clear message. "The utility company cannot unilaterally remove a tree, period, without the consent of the homeowner," he said.  

That was already standard practice for utilities like United Illuminating, but Betkoski said the PURA ruling makes customer notification a requirement, unless the branch poses an imminent threat to safety.

Betkoski also said the ruling clears up a few other gray areas. Namely, how that notice is given to the customer. "Prior, you'd see something on the doorknob," he said. "Now the utility has to demonstrate to us that they made every effort possible to contact the homeowner," which means utilities will have to send notifications electronically or,  if they get no response, via certified mail.

If homeowners object, they can appeal tree removals all the way up to the PURA board.

The ruling also directs UI and Connecticut Light and Power to "initiate discussions" with telecommunication companies to resolve utility pole cost sharing issues. PURA said there are more than 858,000 poles in Connecticut, which host wires for a variety of companies. "Think about telephone poles and what goes on them. You have electric wires. You have telephone wires. You have cable wires," Betkoski said. "So there's always some tension about who is responsible for what."

Over the next five years, Connecticut Light and Power is expected to spend $314M for vegetation maintenance; UI is set to spend $100M over eight years. 

Both UI and CL&P argued telecommunications weren't paying "fair cost incurred during storm restorations and ongoing preventive maintenance," Betkowski said. "So we're urging them in the decision to mediate on their own and if not, it will come before us."

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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