PURA revises tree-trimming guidelines for utilities

The state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority today issued a ruling on revised tree-trimming guidelines for Connecticut’s major utilities.

The draft decision redefines the procedures utilities must follow when trimming trees near utility poles and lines, establishes clearance zones around utility conductors and wires, and establishes a PURA resolution process for property owner objections to proposed tree-related work, the agency said in a news release.

The PURA ruling directs the major utilities to incorporate into their maintenance plans the recommendations developed by the State Vegetation Management Taskforce, a volunteer group created to develop comprehensive standards for roadside tree care, vegetation management practices and schedules, and other related actions.

Under the ruling, utilities will be required to deliver notice to property owners before pruning or removing any tree or shrub within prescribed zones. A property owner may object to proposed pruning or removal by notifying the utility and the local tree warden or, in some instances, the state Commissioner of Transportation. The tree warden must then respond, following consultation with the property owner. If either the property owner or the utility objects to the tree warden’s ruling, either may appeal to PURA, which will conduct a hearing and rule on the matter.

The PURA decision follows recent legislation, several task force reports and multiple public hearings investigating best practices to make utility infrastructure more resilient to storm damage, and to promote shorter restoration time following weather-related outage events.

The ruling directs AT&T and Verizon to incorporate tree-trimming activities into their annual utility pole maintenance plan reports. Many of Connecticut’s nearly 860,000 utility poles are jointly owned by the local electric distribution company and the telephone company. Approximately half of all utility poles that support electric facilities are maintained by the Connecticut Light & Power Co. or the United Illuminating Co., while AT&T or Verizon maintain the remainder. The ruling also instructs those utilities to update their agreements to reflect a 70/30 (electric/telecommunications) sharing of future costs associated with planned tree-trimming and vegetation management, similar to the current arrangement those companies have for storm-related tree work costs.

Recent storm-related outages underscored the importance of tree management along heavily forested roadways and other rights-of-way. Connecticut is the fifth most forested state in the nation, leads the nation in the forest cover found in urban areas, and has the highest percentage of forested land in close proximity to homes, the agency noted. The majority of outages in recent major storms were caused by trees falling on overhead electrical distribution lines and in some cases taking down utility poles, the agency said.

Following severe storms in 2011 and 2012, Connecticut’s major utilities implemented many recommendations to improve storm resilience. The two largest electric utilities, CL&P and UI, have since committed to significantly increased tree-trimming budgets over the next five to eight years. CL&P is expected to spend $314 million for its vegetation maintenance plan over the next five years, while UI plans to spend $100 million over eight years.

Parties to the PURA proceeding have until June 6 to submit written comments on the draft decision. The PURA commissioners are scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case on June 10 and plan to render a final ruling on June 11.

The draft decision can be found at www.ct.gov/pura/site/default.asp, Docket No. 12-01-10, “PURA Investigation into the Tree Trimming Practices of Connecticut’s Utility Companies.”

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