The Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL) has chosen not to appeal Ingham County Judge Clinton Canady’s ruling in BWL’s lawsuit against two East Lansing homeowners. BWL had until October 21 to appeal the ruling that gave the couple the right to use their own arborist to manage trees near the powerlines in their backyard. BWL did not file an appeal.
“The BWL sued us in March of 2015,” Dick and Conni Crittenden, residents of the Glencairn neighborhood, recalled to me this week. “The suit lasted for just over 18 months. The suit was costly to us financially and emotionally.” But, they say, “We were committed to defending our rights and have no regrets in our decision to do so.”
The photo above, taken yesterday, shows the Crittendens at home with a piece of artwork that has even more meaning for them now than when it was purchased. Dick bought it to give to Conni as a fortieth wedding anniversary present. It’s a print by Dr. Seuss of “The Lorax,” the mythical creature who speaks for the trees and tries to save them. Dick had gotten it for Conni because she has spent decades teaching environmental issues, teaching children to care about the natural world.
It was only a few days after Dick gave Conni “The Lorax” that BWL showed up to cut the Crittendens’ trees in a fashion the Crittendens found highly disproportionate to the situation. Dick and Conni decided pretty much right away to fight back. Besides demanding that the company show him proof it had the right to do the cutting it insisted, Dick also produced yard signs and distributed them to about one hundred like-minded homeowners. The signs instructed BWL-hired trimmers that they had to show proof of easement rights to cut before doing so.
Why did the Crittendens take on this battle? “We chose to defend ourselves because we believe that trees are an integral part of the fabric and character of our property and that of neighborhoods that have the kind of vegetation which exist in neighborhoods which are the age of ours.”
They explain, “We chose to live here almost forty years ago because of the mature trees which are a prominent feature of our neighborhood. We believe that the BWL's absolute no-overhang policy is unnecessary and does not adequately consider the impact of their guidelines on the value and aesthetics of home owner's and city properties.”
Other homeowners were threatened with lawsuits if they did not allow BWL to cut as the company wanted, but to our knowledge, among East Lansing homeowners, only the Crittendens have actually been taken to court. Dick and Conni Crittenden believe BWL singled them out because they had encouraged other homeowners to fight back, creating something of a movement in East Lansing yards.
“The BWL chose, to our knowledge, to file suit against us and no one else in East Lansing. The signs, which were purchased by us, and were posted on almost 100 properties by residents of East Lansing who were concerned about their trees, were of prominent mention in the BWL's lawsuit against us.”
Indeed, in the filings and court hearings, BWL’s attorneys mentioned the signs many times. This is why, the Crittendens say, “It is difficult not to conclude that the BWL chose to file suit against us, in part, because of the signs.”
In suing the Crittendens, BWL had been insisting it had to do a lot of cutting to protect its wires and the people near those wires. The Crittendens were not against trimming—in fact, they had over the years hired a professional to do the trimming BWL never did until the criticisms of the company that followed the big ice storm of 2014. But the Crittendens (who had never lost power during the ice storm) wanted a less aggressive approach that would preserve the shade and aesthetics of their backyard as much as possible.
While he allowed that BWL had an easement right to do trimming in the Crittendens’ yard and immediate neighborhood, Judge Canady ultimately ruled for the Crittendens when it came to the matter of how the trees would be cut. He let the Crittendens use their own arborist to do the trimming. That trimming was carried out this past Monday.
Though the case ultimately came to be mostly about a single maple tree, Judge Canady took the case quite seriously. Indeed, in July, several rounds into the case, he decided that he had to come see the disputed maple tree and the wires for himself. I consequently found myself in the Crittendens’ backyard witnessing a court hearing en plein air, something I didn’t know ever happened.
A court stenographer sat on a patio chair with her machine perched in her lap. Around her stood the judge, the Crittendens, the General Manager of BWL, various BWL “vegetation management” staff, lawyers for both sides, BWL’s forester, and the Crittenden’s arborist. As is often the case with stories ELi covers, I was the only reporter present. Because I’d brought my computer to take notes, I found myself sitting on the grass, at the feet of all these people.
Not sure if the usual rules about “no photos in the court” applied in a backyard, I asked Judge Canady after the hearing whether I could print the image of him holding court among the trees. He gave me permission. (Article continues after photo.)
The Crittendens tell me they “are satisfied with the Court's decision, which validated our belief that the BWL's guidelines should not be applied to the trees on our property and that the alternatives we proposed were acceptable.”
I asked them, finally, what they want other homeowners to know.
“The BWL does not have blanket easement rights on private properties in in East Lansing,” they answered. “The easement right for each property owner can vary depending on what easement rights are contained in the registered deed for the individual property (the deed for our property covers only 111 homes in Ardson Heights which is only a portion of the Glencairn neighborhood).”
They continued, “Homeowners should make sure they know what the deed for their property says with respect to easement rights. They have a right to ask the BWL to show them the document which they believe gives them the right to perform any work on their property. If the BWL claims that the decision in their lawsuit against us permits them to remove all overhang vegetation on their property, they are misrepresenting the Court's decision. Homeowners have rights and they should exercise them if they have concerns about what the BWL intends to do on their property.”
We asked the Crittendens' attorney to explain property owners' rights in light of Judge Canady's decisions. Read what he had to say.
Disclosure: ELi is supported by individual donors, and our donors include Richard and Conni Crittenden. Traditional local media, including the Lansing State Journal and WILX (which have reporte on this lawsuit), are supported primarily by advertising dollars, which includes money from BWL in the case of the LSJ, and Consumers Energy in the case of WILX. This reporter volunteers (is never paid for) all of her service to ELi.