Alarming NJ bill would exempt public utilities and cable tv companies from complying with local laws on tree removal and cutting

To the Editor:

At the end of January, the New Jersey State Senate will vote on a bill that would diminish the local voice in the care of trees and shrubs, particularly those in the right-of way along streets — including trees on private lands whose branches extend over the right-of-way and those in municipal parks.  The Vegetation Management Response Act (S2505) would do this by exempting public utilities and cable television companies from needing to comply with municipal laws and, more generally, from taking local vegetation management priorities or concerns into account. The Assembly recently passed the bill (A2558) with nearly unanimous approval.  

The bill is presented as if it is urgently needed to prevent the disruption of electric power supply during extreme weather events.  But the mandate and the authority to carry out vegetation management to ensure reliable electric supply was granted to electric utilities more than a decade ago under state statute and rules.  This bill is not needed for that purpose.

Rather, the actual thrust of the bill seems to be asserting that no person or body representing the locality shall “interfere with or restrict an electric public utility’s removal, replacement, or maintenance” of trees and shrubs. No one questions the importance of reliability of electric supply. Yet, while trees may have the potential to interfere with electric service, they also bestow incalculable benefits.  They impart beauty, provide refuge to wildlife, serve as buffers to the extremes of weather, offer cooling shade in summer and windscreens in winter, curtail flooding, and restore the groundwater supply. The municipal tree canopy needs to be managed with all these qualities in mind.  The utility’s perspective should not be authorized to override all others unilaterally.  No law should not authorize utilities to do whatever they want and give no consideration to a municipality’s concerns.      

This bill grants a utility the right to disregard any local law it deems as interfering with or restricting its vegetation management work.  Alarmingly, it extends this right not just to electric utilities but to any public utility or cable television company. The law defines “public utility” to include electric, gas, water, and pipeline companies and numerous others.  Although the bill requires electric utilities to adhere to professionally recognized vegetation management standards, and to provide notice to affected municipalities and private property owners before removing trees, other types of public utilities are not held to any standards or notice requirements.

Local authorities do have a responsibility to work with public utilities and cable television providers.  Existing practice is for the municipality to support utilities in their appropriate programs of vegetation management. This has worked well and should not be abandoned.  But all parties should continue to be held to professionally recognized standards of tree care, cooperative planning, and regular communication.

It is critical that residents call Princeton’s State Senator, Kip Bateman (908- 526-3600), and urge him to oppose passage of S2505 as currently written. Following is a link to the bill itself: https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2018/Bills/S3000/2505_R3.PDF

Thank you for taking action on behalf of Princeton’s tree canopy.

Sharon Ainsworth, Sandra Chen, and Janet Stern
Princeton Shade Tree Commission

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2 comments
  • Pennsylvania has long has this legal approach and practice. Congress has passed clear laws and regulations on how trees must be trimmed and removed near power lines. The local governments no longer have an standing in the matter of trees near power lines. The shade committee should focus their efforts on sustainable reforestation away from power lines and other areas of long term concern.

  • Thank You very much Princeton Shade Tree Commission for this excellent letter. Forestry professionals agree that this is an appalling bill that should have never made it out of committee. There is too much careless ROW tree trimming in many parks and preserves as it is. Seen utility crews drive and mow right through middle of streams with no care and consideration, leaving enormous ruts discharging sediment and dumping vegetation in the streams. They’ve toppled vital shade trees in preserves. Knowledgeable local authorities need leverage over how, where, and how much to trim.

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