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WKYT Investigates | The roots of KU’s tree removal plan

Neighbors say they are hoping for some flexibility and nuance instead of an irreversible, one-stump-fits-all solution.
Published: Oct. 18, 2021 at 12:22 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Multiple city leaders are meeting with Kentucky Utilities officials this week amid a growing controversy about the utility company’s ongoing efforts to clear-cut many trees near power lines in Lexington neighborhoods.

“It’s going to be like a tornado went through our backyard and just destroyed everything,” said Adam Gray, a Lexington resident who was told that he would lose all but two of his trees this week if something does not change.

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Homeowners are continuing to mobilize in opposition by raising awareness among their neighbors, hosting meetings with their neighborhood associations, contacting local leaders and company officials, and submitting complaints to the Public Service Commission.

The commission had received at least 10 complaints from Lexington residents in the past week, a PSC spokesperson told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer on Wednesday.

[MORE | WKYT Investigates]

A spokesperson for Kentucky Utilities said the company, too, has heard from angry customers, has met with groups in neighborhoods and is continuing to have internal conversations about what to do.

“It is tough. It is frustrating for folks,” said Daniel Lowry, the KU spokesperson. “We understand that. So hopefully folks understand our perspective, too.”

In an interview, Lowry defended the utility’s practices but also expressed openness to the possibility that changes could be made.

Why the change?

Documents filed with the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities across Kentucky, shed light on the reasoning and background behind the change that now has more trees being chopped down instead of trimmed like they were before.

Previously, tree-trimming schedules were based on vegetation growth, cycle-last trim date, reliability data and visual inspections, KU officials said in documents filed with the PSC. “Tree removals are addressed on a situational basis,” the response reads, “and by land owner permission.”

The previous way of doing things was referred to as “just-in-time” tree trimming based on quarterly inspections.

But, in 2019, Kentucky Utilities began implementing a new “vegetation management program,” part of its Transmission System Improvement Plan that was part of the utility company’s rate increase request that went before state regulators in 2016.

“Enhanced vegetation management programs (include) identification and removal of hazard trees, cycle based clearing of transmission line corridors, and widening of maintained areas around targeted lines,” according to plan highlights included in a PSC filing.

The new plan is a five-year cycle of line clearing.

[READ MORE | KU’s policy for trees near power lines and tips for planting]

KU’s website states that trees that could reach a mature height of 15 feet will be removed from transmission line right-of-ways, even if they are not that tall now. That is based off height from ground level, not clearance from the lines themselves.

“Before we were in more of a reactive mode. Now we’re more proactive,” Lowry said. “We look at it like, ‘We’ve got to keep on this.’ And our enhancements are working.”

The program is designed to “improve line safety and reliability.” Similar practices have helped cut power outages (excluding major events) by 40 percent since 2011, KU officials said.

“Inspections of lines which have already been cleared under the cycle reveal more uniform line clearance as compared to the previous just-in-time approach, in which significant variations in vegetation encroachment on a single line were sometimes observed,” states KU’s latest Transmission System Improvement Plan Annual Report, which was published in June.

The consultant’s report used to justify the change in methodology shows that 85 percent of tree-caused outages in 2012-2014 were from trees falling from outside the right-of-way, pointing to a need to be more thorough in identifying and clearing hazard trees.

The program is more costly up front - particularly because “line clearing for the cycled lines will involve a significant amount of tree removal,” rebuttal testimony shows - but long term it is expected to be more cost-effective.

“After completion of the first five-year cycle...the program is expected to reduce the costs of vegetation management and right of way maintenance in addition to improving system reliability,” another document shows.

What’s next?

Several neighborhoods have already had trees clear-cut, and crews continue to move through town.

Many neighbors have told WKYT Investigates that they want contractors to pause the tree work completely until a more agreeable plan of action can be determined.

Those off Lakeshore Drive - where trees are scheduled to get the axe this week - are imploring flexibility, hoping for a little bit of nuance to be applied instead of an irreversible, one-stump-fits-all solution.

“We’re all a community together,” said Katherine Graham, who has been researching the issue since she was notified she would lose dozens of trees as well. “We’re grateful for the services and the power that we get. But we need to work together and appreciate all the beautiful trees Lexington has and the impact that they have.”

Lexington leaders do not like what his happening and how KU is handling it.

“Neighbors are outraged,” Mayor Gorton said last week of the reaction her office has received in regards to the situation.

In November 2020, the Lexington Urban County Council passed a resolution that “roundly condemns Kentucky Utilities’ extreme and unilateral tree removal practice of clear-cutting trees...that pose no immediate threat to electric service.”

In July, threatening further regulations, council members asked Mayor Linda Gorton to negotiate an agreement with KU about clear-cutting trees.

Mayor Gorton was scheduled to meet with KU’s new president/CEO on Monday to talk about the issue. KU officials are also expected to go before the urban county council during a work session scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday at council chambers.

“We hear these folks. We hear our customers. And we understand,” Lowry said. “We understand the concerns they have, and the questions they have. We are listening.”

When asked again whether that meant some adjustments and changes were to be made, Lowry said that “could very well be possible.”

He also explained that one reason for customers’ frustration with cutting down trees that breach the height requirements within the right-of-way but do not necessarily threaten the line is the need to enforce the policy consistently and in an equitable manner. Another is access for power crews.

“I think some of these trees that are very tall, if they’re a threat to the lines, I understand,” said Adam Gray, who is upset over the trees he is expected to lose. “But the trees that are clearly not a threat and clearly not going to be a problem in 20 years, I think that’s overkill.”

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