A bill is making it through the legislature that would give utility and cable companies the right to cut down trees and branches they feel could pose a danger to their power supply.

By Jaimie Julia Winters

With more towns now treating their tree canopies as assets to be properly maintained, downed trees could become a main threat to power lines and a cause of power loss during storms, according to utility companies. Three storms in the past eight years alone — hurricanes Irene and Sandy and the March 2018 nor’easter — were responsible for a combined 155,000 downed trees and six million customer outages throughout the state.

A bill making quick movement through the state legislature would give electric and telecommunications companies complete control over tree-clearing around lines and poles.

But that bill is facing some harsh criticism by Montclair town officials, the Montclair Environmental Commission and the Friends of Bonsal Preserve.

The Vegetation Management Response Act would give utility companies sole and absolute control over all trees, shrubs and vegetation within the public rights-of-way, adjacent to and near the public rights-of-way and on private property. It allows utility companies to cut or remove all trees they deem “dangerous.”

The bill prohibits the Community Forestry Council and county or municipal shade tree commissions from working with, or restricting, an electrical utility’s removal, replacement, or maintenance of dangerous vegetation.

The bill also states that a utility or cable company is not required to receive the permission of any county or municipal shade tree commission to clear, move, cut or destroy dangerous vegetation, and will not be subject to any penalty imposed by any commission.

Local officials said the bill, if passed, would diminish local input when it comes to the care of Montclair’s tree canopy.

The definition of “dangerous vegetation” also allows the utility companies to remove trees and vegetation which could be 100 feet away from utility lines. Locals are also concerned over the potential loss of trees with branches that extend over the right-of-way by exempting public utilities and cable companies from local oversight.

“Much of what the utility companies require in order to maintain utility lines is already addressed in the existing BPU rules and regulations,” writes Bill Comery, Former Chairman of the NJ Community Forestry Council, and Past President and current member of the NJ Shade Tree Federation. “There is no objection to assisting utility companies with effectively maintaining utility lines. The proposed legislation eliminates the need to have continued open communication and a working relationship between the municipal arborist and the vegetation management arborist of the utility company.”

The Assembly recently passed the bill A2558 with nearly unanimous approval. Its companion bill, S2505, has been making it through the Senate with amendments. Those amendments put back in place the required notifications to town and property owners on any vegetation management plan.

On Feb. 18, Montclair’s township council passed a resolution opposing the bill.

“High-level concerns are that it provides unilateral authority to remove public and private trees to any utility and now including cable and communication companies,” said Suzanne Aptman of the Montclair Environmental Commission. “It would also permit the removal of trees on private property without the owner’s consent. There would be no recourse or compensation for the loss of value in their properties, nor for the loss of the public good that trees provide, when trees are removed. It does not require licensed tree experts be involved in all aspects of the decision making.”

The bill notes that damage from past severe storms is why it is “necessary to authorize electric public utilities to maintain, remove and replace dangerous vegetation to prevent power disruptions and preserve the uninterrupted transmission and distribution of power in this state.”

Sandy alone led to the loss of approximately 116 overhead electric transmission lines and 117,000 trees and damage to over 71 percent of all electric distribution circuits. The destruction caused by Sandy also required assistance from more than 20,000 out-of-state electric public utility workers.

But local officials say the bill goes too far in giving the utility companies an entitlement that could hurt the Garden State.

“Utility companies look at the world as a powerline and that’s all that matters,” said Jonathan Grupper of the Friends of Bonsal Preserve. “If this goes through we might as well change our name from the ‘Garden State’ to the ‘Powerline State.’ It essentially is re-prioritizing what we put value in. We should also put value in the nature around us.”

Grupper knows too well the damage wrought when citizen and local input is eliminated. Bonsal has two utilities with easements within the preserve — the North Jersey Water Supply Commission and the Clifton municipal sewage system — both of which conducted maintenance last year. The NJWSC cleared away 75 trees that officials contended needed to go in order to maintain the water line. While Clifton officials worked with the Friends, the Water Supply Commission gave little-to-no notification of their maintenance plans.

“We could serve as a cautionary tale as to what happens when utility companies are given free reign with no oversight,” Grupper said. “Notification only tells you that you are going into surgery whether you like it or not. Where’s the oversight, the check-in? There is nothing in this bill that requires the utilities to act responsibly.”

Grupper is also concerned with the definition of “dangerous” vegetation and the 100-feet allowance.

“Anything in reach of, or on the fringe of, a utility could be impacted,” said Grupper.

The League of Municipalities is also against the bill and worked to postpone a full Senate vote while working with the sponsors on amendments.