Trees lose in power play

Record, The (Hackensack, NJ)

January 4, 2008

Thousands of trees across North Jersey are destined for the buzz saw because of a new requirement to protect against power outages.

New Jersey power companies are now required to clear land below and alongside high voltage transmission lines. All trees or vegetation that have the potential to grow taller than 15 feet must be taken down.

The tree-cutting mandate from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has sparked complaints throughout the state from property owners anguished over the loss of decades-old trees.

In Upper Saddle River, the owners of one commercial building have hired a lawyer in an attempt to spare some of the 200 dogwoods, scrub pines, weeping cherries and crabapple trees on land along East Crescent Avenue. Those trees could be felled soon by the Rockland Electric Co.

"They don't need to do this," said Steven Paley, whose family has owned the building for more than 30 years. The lushly landscaped property features an outdoor wood pavilion where employees eat their lunch in warmer months.

"They can protect their power lines and have access to them without bulldozers taking all of these trees," Paley said.

The mandate is a response to the August 2003 blackout that crippled much of the eastern United States and Canada. Sagging power lines that brushed against a tree limb in northern Ohio caused a chain reaction that affected nearly 50 million people.

Rockland Electric has sent notices about the tree-cutting requirements to residents in Closter, Cresskill, Demarest, Franklin Lakes, Mahwah, Montvale, Northvale, Old Tappan, Ramsey, Ringwood, Upper Saddle River and West Milford. The properties are all traversed by 100-foot rights-of-way for high-voltage power transmission lines.

Property owners have previously been able to plant trees along these corridors, with the utilities retaining the right to trim. Now most types of the trees will have to be removed, and property owners will be able to plant only grass and small shrubs, creating a "prairie effect" described in the rules.

The mandate does not apply to trees below electrical distribution lines, the type that crisscross neighborhoods and deliver power to homes.

Rockland Electric plans to clear an 80-foot-wide path along the rear of the Paley family's 10-acre lot, eliminating much of the forested buffer between its building and neighboring homes. The family has asked their property manager, Jane Longo, to contact surrounding homeowners to encourage them to join the legal fight.

"What we'd like to see here is a class-action suit," Paley said.

Rockland Electric officials say they can't veer from the requirements.

"We have no recourse but to comply with the BPU mandate," said spokeswoman Cecille Jones.

A BPU official who visited the property in late December turned down an appeal from the family. There is little recourse for property owners because the new rules stem from federal guidelines that the state is required to follow said Doyal Siddell, a spokesman for the BPU.

"There's no leeway," he said.

Rockland Electric has agreed to delay tree removal on the property until Feb. 1 to give the family time to file a legal challenge.


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