New Yard Sign Campaign Questions BWL’s Right to Cut

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Friday, September 26, 2014, 5:13 pm
Alice Dreger

East Lansing residents are seeing fewer tree trimming crews out working for Lansing’s Board of Water and Light (BWL), the major provider of electricity to East Lansing. But tensions remain very high between BWL and homeowners. Some homeowners who have already experienced damage to their properties from trimmer crews are being offered compensation by BWL. Others, worried about future damage, have joined a new yard sign campaign. The signs, organized by East Lansing resident Richard Crittenden, read: “NOTICE: LBWL and its subcontractors may not enter this property to trim vegetation without the owner’s written or verbal permission, and proof of an easement right to do so!”

Kali Majumdar of the Glencairn neighborhood suffered extensive damage to her landscaping by BWL when cutting occurred while she was out of the country. BWL has hired a landscape company to restore her property. She says, “In exchange, I will let them use my backyard as a demonstration area for our neighbors who are looking to replant. I have no idea how tall the trees are when they are planted or how much it will cost for them.”

Majumdar speculates that BWL decided to spend what may be thousands of dollars on her property because they were “quite horrified how badly the job was done.” Other residents of Glencairn and Oakwood have been negotiating with BWL for compensation and replanting either after or in advance of BWL cutting. Some have been asking to see BWL’s legal easements.

Most utilities have legal easements for properties through which their equipment runs; legal easements specify the utility’s rights. It now appears that in most if not all of East Lansing, BWL has no legal easements for where their lines run. I asked BWL’s Director of Communications Steve Serkaian about whether BWL has easements for properties over which BWL lines run in East Lansing, and he said he was unable to respond at this time.

BWL also apparently has no legal agreement with the City of East Lansing regarding the lines that run on City property. This means that the City could also stop BWL from cutting trees on City property, including along many city streets. Because East Lansing prides itself as a “tree city,” the stakes here may be higher than in other municipalities.

I asked Crittenden why he decided to launch the yard sign campaign. He responded, “Customers of the BWL have to know their property rights." He continued, "Trimming without a right to do so violates State law. Customers should make the BWL demonstrate, with written proof, that they have a property easement and that the easement specifies the right to trim vegetation and the amount of trimming that is allowed. Absent such documentation the homeowner should not permit the BWL to do any trimming unless the homeowner authorizes such.”

Ruth Beier, a member of East Lansing’s City Council, told me, “BWL says that if East Lansing is allowed to keep its historic trees, the next time we have an outage due to trees brought down in a storm, it will be more expensive to restore power in East Lansing than where BWL was allowed to cut trees.” But, she adds, “In East Lansing we pay the same utility rates as in Lansing, but in Lansing the money goes back to their city to subsidize their other city services, so we effectively pay more in East Lansing for our BWL service. It therefore seems acceptable to me that it might cost more to fix the outages in East Lansing.”

Crittenden says that he does not want to stop tree trimming altogether, but to make it more rational: “I believe the ‘vegetation management’ program of the BWL is wrong and will do irreparable harm to most homes in East Lansing. It must be stopped and a new much less damaging plan must be developed to replace the current plan. The signs are my way to make the community more aware of the issue and to get property owners to find out about their rights and to exercise them.”

He added, “If the signs save one tree, the cost of them is more than offset.” He has invited homeowners who want a sign to email him at crittendenr at gmail dot com or to pick one up from him at 603 Ardson Road.

Disclosure: Alice Dreger is a customer of BWL. Although the trees at her East Lansing home are unaffected by BWL's vegetation management program, the trees of her immediate neighbors are.


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