Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 29, 2013

Editorial: Property owners need help to protect easements

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The dispute eventually will be decided by chainsaws, but words and tape measures appear to be key as property owners in Grand Traverse, Manistee and Wexford counties fight to save their trees.

Michigan Electric Transmission Company is rebuilding its 138,000-volt Keystone-Hodenpyl transmission line and is replacing old wooden power poles installed in the 1950s with new steel poles.

In the process, the company is cutting trees along an easement it controls on either side of the line to make room for construction, including trees “which at any time may interfere or threaten to interfere with the maintenance of such lines.” “Threaten to interefere” is a pretty broad description, one which land owners say the company is abusing.

Lynn Tilson, of Grant Township, said the company plans to cut hundreds of red pines on her property beyond a 50-foot easement she believes the utility controls on either side of its lines.

METC says it needs 80 feet on either side of the center line, making the right-of-way 160 feet, not 100 feet.

“Those are our current construction standards to ensure safety and reliability of the line,” said Joe Kirik, spokesman for METC’s parent company.

The question now is whether the company’s “current construction standards” or easements described in deeds and other documents will decide who is right, and how many trees will go.

Tilson is the first property owner to take the utility to court, and although 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power approved her request for a preliminary injunction that temporarily limits the company’s tree removal plans to a 100-foot right-of-way, the company indicated it will proceed with cutting.

This isn’t the first such conflict in northern Michigan between utilities and property owners and won’t be the last. Utilities worried that falling tree limbs will take out electric lines and leave thousands in the dark routinely raise the ire of locals by aggressively — too aggressively, at times — cutting trees along power lines.

This is a regional problem that demands a regional solution. County and township governments need to get involved to see that while utility companies must be able to ensure the safety of their lines and have room to rebuild, property owners are protected.

Local governments can help establish rights-of-way and easements, a job that can be difficult and intimidating for someone not familiar with the process.

Someone needs to level the playing field here; it’s way too easy for a determined company with a deadline to simply chainsaw someone’s beloved trees — and property values — and just move on.