Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Utility Easements and Contentious Tree-Trimming

If you purchase a house in Virginia (or most anywhere else), the title to your property will almost certainly be encumbered by utility easements.


Utility easements are documents, recorded in the local Clerk's Office, by which an owner (usually the original developer) of the property conveys to various companies (the telephone company, the power company, the cable company, etc.) the right to maintain, repair and replace their lines and other equipment. 

Utility easements usually include both the right to enter onto private property and the right to remove "obstructions" within the easement area (usually 10 to 30 feet, in residential areas) that could interfere with operation of the utilities. 


The "obstructions" in question, usually, are trees: trunks, roots and branches. 

A typical provision reads like this: "Grantee shall have the right to keep the easement clear of all buildings, structures, trees, undergrowth and other obstructions ... including the right to trim, top, and cut any trees or brush inside and outside the boundaries of the easement that may endanger the safe and proper operation of its facilities."


Alas, there can be a difference of opinion between a property owner and a power company as to when a tree needs to be trimmed in order to ensure "safe and proper operation."

And when the power company fells a favorite limb from an owner's beloved oak tree because the company thinks the limb has grown too close to the power line, the owner may not be appeased to learn that the company was technically acting in accordance with its rights under the easement.


With this background, yesterday's Washington Post has an interesting story (here) about Pepco's efforts to trim trees in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.

Pepco had been criticized for lackluster maintenance in the years leading up to the recent storms which brought down a significant number of power lines (this reminds me of similar criticism of Dominion Power in central Virginia).

According to the Post, even though Pepco is notifying owners before tree-trimming, there are enough disgruntled property owners that the Montgomery County (Maryland) council is considering legislation that would restrict the ability of utility companies to take down trees without the prior consent of the owner:
Two council members introduced legislation last month that would require the county’s chief of tree maintenance to intervene when a utility company cannot gain consent from a homeowner to remove a tree the utility says is an imminent hazard to its system. The legislation also calls for utility companies to gain homeowner or occupant consent before any vegetation management is performed and would require companies to grind the stumps of trees they remove and to fill the holes left behind.
Owner consent is rarely required in the text of a utility easement, and I am doubtful that a local jurisdiction would succeed in retroactively imposing a consent requirement on the utility companies.

You make the call: Should these limbs be trimmed?