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Utilities seek new authority in tree trimming disputes

Issue Date: July 20, 2011
By Christine Souza
San Joaquin County farmer John Sanguinetti says he has had to negotiate with his utility about the best time to trim his trees, and says a proposed rule could eliminate his bargaining power.
Photo/Matt Salvo
A proposal by utilities “assumes there is only one side to a question about access to property for tree trimming,” says California Farm Bureau Associate Counsel Karen Norene Mills.
Photo/Matt Salvo

If a utility company views trees encroaching on powerlines that could pose a safety hazard, and there is a dispute with the landowner over access, the company might be able to shut off power to a landowner's primary residence or primary place of business, under a proposed rule currently being considered by the California Public Utilities Commission. The shutoff of power for utility service at a residence or business would be in addition to a shutoff at the location of the claimed vegetation hazard.

San Joaquin County walnut grower John Sanguinetti has powerlines running diagonally across four acres of his walnut trees. Having had to negotiate with his utility company about convenient times to trim trees without disrupting his operation, he said he's concerned about how this proposed rule could affect his business and residence.

"Last year, (Pacific Gas and Electric Co.) kept insisting on going into the property. With the right conditions, as long as they are not going to be harming the ground, I have no problem with them coming in. This last winter, however, I had to hold them off three different times about going in there in a muddy situation," Sanguinetti said. "They were very persistent. They brought the crew here and we were in rubber boots it was so muddy, but it doesn't bother them; they are not stuck with the ground conditions after they leave."

Sanguinetti said he recognizes that the utility companies have a right to trim his walnut trees that are too close to the lines, but he just wants the least impact on his operation.

"I asked the tree trimming crew to come back when it was dry enough so it wouldn't hinder my ground. Last year, I floated that ground eight times to get it smooth enough to harvest off of, so tree trimming in the mud would just ruin all of that. I would have to go refloat it at my own expense to get that ground right again so I could harvest on it," Sanguinetti said.

"If the PUC approves the proposed rule and I threw them out, I imagine they would just turn the electricity off because it is in their favor. There would be no discussion about it," he said. "The biggest problem is, as a big company, there is no respect for a little self-proprietor. We more or less get pushed around by the big operators. If only they would just cooperate."

Although the PUC proceeding for the proposed rule was precipitated by Southern California wildfires in 2007, the rule would apply throughout the state and is not specifically linked to fire risk. Because not all of the details about the proposal have been solidified, there is a real concern about how widely the utilities would be able to utilize such a tool.

"Our members support hundreds if not thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines on their properties by way of utility easements. The utilities' proposal that gave rise to the rule assumes there is only one side to a question about access to property for tree trimming," said Karen Norene Mills, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel and director of public utilities. "The agreements that the landowners have with the utilities about access to the distribution and transmission lines through easements are completely separate from the agreements they have with them about their utility service, and should be kept that way. The remedies currently available to utilities to enforce these agreements are sufficient to assure safety."

In Shasta County, John Fields, a cattle rancher who also works for a timber operation, said he's concerned about what could come from the proposed rule, especially because he has spent years cleaning up after tree trimmers on his and his absentee neighbor's properties.

"My local utility company is not a good neighbor, that's all there is to it. I think they feel that they can walk all over you and there's nothing you can do about it," Fields said. "They haven't kept their roads up underneath their right-of-way, they have knocked down gates and fences, and they leave a mess."

Stanton Lange, president of Vineyard Management Inc. in Lodi, said he is concerned about how the proposal could impact his grapevines if power to his irrigation pumps is shut down.

"I think they'll just come to me and say, 'Okay, fine, we'll just turn your irrigation system off.' So with this proposed rule, you as the landowner don't have a choice in the matter," Lange said. "This is not a fair solution."

The trees trimmed by the utility on Lange's property are more than a century-old heritage oak trees and palm trees that date back to the 1910s, before the utility company had a line running through the property.

In his comments to the PUC, farmer Bill DuBois Jr. of El Centro encouraged the commission to come up with a different solution.

"Do not adopt this rule, but rather, work on adopting a rule that gives farmers the right to protect their crops and schedule vegetation management at times mutually convenient to the utility and the farmer," DuBois said, adding that "during harvest, after pesticide applications, and immediately after planting, any intrusion onto cropland can be costly for the farmer and dangerous for the vegetation management crew."

Mills said CFBF is continuing to address the proposed rule, being considered in Rulemaking 08-11-005 at the PUC. She said she is hopeful that changes will be made to address the organization's concerns.

The PUC is not expected to act on the proposed rule before Aug. 18.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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