Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 24, 2013

Utility cuts trees beyond easements, property owners say

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Lynn Tilson is trying to save 374 of her red pines from the chainsaw.

Michigan Electric Transmission Company marked the trees for removal, beyond the 50-foot easement Tilson believes the utility has on either side of its power lines. She worries the tree removal will limit where she can build a retirement home on her 11-acre Grant Township property.

"I purchased the property primarily because of the trees," Tilson said. "I had no idea I'd be losing trees beyond the 50 feet."

METC is rebuilding its 138,000-volt Keystone-Hodenpyl transmission line and replacing old wooden power poles installed in the 1950s with new steel monopoles. The utility informed property owners in Grand Traverse, Manistee and Wexford counties it plans to remove trees located up to 80 feet on either side of the center line, making the right-of-way 160 feet.

"Those are our current construction standards to ensure safety and reliability of the line," said Joe Kirik, spokesman for ITC Holdings Corp., METC's parent company.

But many property owners along the 26-mile line are concerned this wider right-of-way literally cuts beyond their easement agreements and may lead to reduced property values. Their trees marked with blue paint and tape will be cut before the rebuild project is completed by early 2014.

"Everybody is so frustrated around here they’re just about ready to blow their stack," said Verna Woodcox, a Blair Township resident. Her husband John told the Record-Eagle in April the tree removal would reduce their pine grove to roughly a dozen trees.

Tilson is the first property owner to take the utility to court. Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power last week approved her request for a preliminary injunction that temporarily limits the company's tree removal plans to a 100 feet right-of-way.

Kirik said the company will comply with the order pending a final decision from the court, but didn't believe it would have a wider impact on the project.

"At this point we'll proceed on our schedule because this a project that will take better part of a year," he said.

Woodcox and other property owners say they plan to follow Tilson's lead. Blair Township resident Pam Schark has been working to organize them to join the lawsuit. She stands to lose trees right up to her Norton Road house.

"They don't want to cut down trees that could be a potential problem to their lines — they want to clear cut them," she said.

Ed Engstrom, a Charlevoix attorney who represents Tilson, said Grand Traverse County property owners could enter the suit as plaintiffs. At least 10 Wexford County property owners also may file suit in their courts, he said.

"I'm telling a lot of the landowners to get involved in this because there's power in numbers," he said.

METC attorneys could not be reached for comment, but argued in court documents the company's easement agreement on Tilson's property gives it the right "to trim or remove any trees which at any time may interfere or threaten to interfere with the maintenance of such lines." The document states 80 feet is the minimum safe distance for trees to be around the power lines in order to avoid costly power outages.

Engstom argues the agreement is clear Tilson's easement is 50 feet on either side of the power lines, while METC maintains it describes where the lines would be placed.

Tilson said some of her trees marked for removal go beyond the 80 feet METC claims.

"It's not fair; they don't own it and they don’t want to negotiate," she said.

Kirik said property owners may call 1-877-482-4829 with questions or concerns.