When a homeowner enjoys a higher standard of notification when their neighbor down the street builds a swimming pool than when a public utility company comes on their own private property and cuts down their trees, clearly there is something out of balance.
Yet that is the frustrating situation faced by many South Shore and Cape Cod residents during the recent round of “vegetation management” programs conducted by our regional electric utility companies.
There is no dispute that keeping transmission lines free of interference, stray tree branches and overgrown vegetation is a necessary part of the process in order to provide safe and reliable electricity transmission in an economically viable fashion.
In many ways our public utilities are in an unenviable position. We demand exactingly high standards –– 100% uptime, zero interruptions, plentiful energy supply at affordable rates, with of course zero inconvenience to us.
However that does not mean that we should allow the process to run roughshod without regard for local concerns. The impacts of local tree clearing on property taxes and home values, our drinking water supply, public safety and wildlife habitat can and should be heard and respected during this process.
As a legislator working with frustrated neighbors and as a homeowner living through this experiences myself, I saw too often that defenders of the status quo would fall back on simplistic slogans, creating straw men arguments and dismissing critics as NIMBYS who didn’t care about providing a reliable power supply. None of which serves to advance the debate or solve the problem.
There may be valid reasons why cutting down a 16-foot apple tree to protect a 60-foot high transmission line is required to prevent power outages, or that spraying chemicals instead of mowing is the only economically feasible way to prevent re-growth of invasive vegetation, but unless there is a public process that involves all stakeholders, few will be satisfied with the outcome.
There’s an expression we’ve all heard that may be appropriate here: can’t see the forest for the trees. Put another way, we get so close to the problem that sometimes we need to step back, reassess and take a new approach. Given the recent experiences of many towns undergoing vegetation management programs, I think it’s time for all of us to do just that.
For that reason, I have filed legislation to establish a special commission to investigate the fiscal and environmental impact of vegetation removal programs.
This commission would include representatives from the utility companies, town officials, legislators, environmental experts and private citizens. The commission members would report back after a designated period of time with recommendations to the legislature as to how we can improve the process for all parties.
The legislation to create this commission, (H. 3754), is being heard by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy at the State House this week.
I am hopeful that by putting all the key stakeholders together we can create a better process that will achieve our shared goal of providing safe and reliable energy transmission in a manner that is respectful of local concerns and protects our environment.
Rep. Josh Cutler represents the Sixth Plymouth District in the Mass. State Legislature.