A better solution than herbicides

There is something out of balance
State rep. files a bill to better control herbicide use on power lines.

Utility tree cutting: toward a more equitable process

By Rep. Josh Cutler

When a homeowner enjoys a higher standard of notification when their neighbor down the street builds a swimming pool than when a public utility company comes on their own private property and cuts down their trees, clearly there is something out of balance.

Yet that is the frustrating situation faced by many South Shore and Cape Cod residents during the recent round of “vegetation management” programs conducted by our regional electric utility companies.

There is no dispute that keeping transmission lines free of interference, stray tree branches and overgrown vegetation is a necessary part of the process in order to provide safe and reliable electricity transmission in an economically viable fashion.

In many ways our public utilities are in an unenviable position. We demand exactingly high standards –– 100% uptime, zero interruptions, plentiful energy supply at affordable rates, with of course zero inconvenience to us.

However that does not mean that we should allow the process to run roughshod without regard for local concerns. The impacts of local tree clearing on property taxes and home values, our drinking water supply, public safety and wildlife habitat can and should be heard and respected during this process.

As a legislator working with frustrated neighbors and as a homeowner living through this experiences myself, I saw too often that defenders of the status quo would fall back on simplistic slogans, creating straw men arguments and dismissing critics as NIMBYS who didn’t care about providing a reliable power supply. None of which serves to advance the debate or solve the problem.

There may be valid reasons why cutting down a 16-foot apple tree to protect a 60-foot high transmission line is required to prevent power outages, or that spraying chemicals instead of mowing is the only economically feasible way to prevent re-growth of invasive vegetation, but unless there is a public process that involves all stakeholders, few will be satisfied with the outcome.

There’s an expression we’ve all heard that may be appropriate here: can’t see the forest for the trees. Put another way, we get so close to the problem that sometimes we need to step back, reassess and take a new approach. Given the recent experiences of many towns undergoing vegetation management programs, I think it’s time for all of us to do just that.

For that reason, I have filed legislation to establish a special commission to investigate the fiscal and environmental impact of vegetation removal programs.

This commission would include representatives from the utility companies, town officials, legislators, environmental experts and private citizens.
The commission members would report back after a designated period of time with recommendations to the legislature as to how we can improve the process for all parties.

The legislation to create this commission, (H. 3754), is being heard by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy at the State House this week.

I am hopeful that by putting all the key stakeholders together we can create a better process that will achieve our shared goal of providing safe and reliable energy transmission in a manner that is respectful of local concerns and protects our environment.

Rep. Josh Cutler represents the Sixth Plymouth District in the Mass. State Legislature.Josh is a Duxbury resident and South Shore native. He currently serves as a member of the following committees: Small Business and Community Development, Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, Election Laws and House Post Audit and Oversight. He was first elected in 2012. Prior to being elected to the legislature, Josh served as a newspaper editor and publisher for his third-generation family business. He also founded the Express Newspapers.

Text of H.3754:

Resolve providing for an investigation and study by a special commission relative to vegetation removal by public utility companies

By Mr. Cutler of Duxbury, a petition (subject to Joint Rule 12) of Josh S. Cutler for an investigation by a special commission (including members of the General Court) relative to vegetation removal by public utility companies. Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

Resolved, That a special commission is hereby established to make an investigation and study relative to the fiscal and environmental impact that vegetation removal by public utility companies has on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In order to assist lawmakers in determining if the increased safety and reliability resulting from vegetation removal activities are worth the cost, the commission shall investigate and study the effect that vegetation management activities have on endangered species, including whether the endangered species act should apply to such activities, home values, municipal property tax income, water supply quality, public safety, reliability of the electrical grid, and dangers that will exist if trees are not removed. The special commission shall consist of: 2 members of the Senate or their designee, 1 of whom shall be appointed by the minority leader; 2 members of the House of Representatives or their designee, 1 of whom shall be appointed by the minority leader; 2 residents on whose property a public utility company completed vegetation removal activities around transmission lines within the preceding 2 years, 1 of whom shall be appointed by the speaker of the House and 1 of whom shall be appointed by the Senate president; 1 member who shall be appointed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association; 2 representatives of public utility companies; 1 town or city assessor, who shall be appointed by the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers; the Chair of the Department of Public Utilities or a designee; the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection or a designee; the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game or a designee; the Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety or a designee.

All appointments shall be made not later than 30 days after the effective date of this resolve. The chairpersons shall meet with the commission not later than 60 days after the effective date of this resolve.

Members shall not receive compensation for their services but may receive reimbursement for the reasonable expenses incurred in carrying out their responsibilities as members of the commission.

The commission shall report to the General Court the results of its investigation and study and its recommendations, if any, together with drafts of legislation necessary to carry its recommendations into effect by filing the same with the Clerk of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives not later than July 30, 2014.

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