Views clash at utility tree trimming hearing

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At least 100 people turned up Sept. 2 for a public hearing held at Pike High School by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) as part of an investigation into tree trimming practices by utilities around the state.

Emotions ran high at points during the meeting, beginning with the first sworn testimony given by Pat Easterday.

Easterday testified that she was not properly notified that Indianapolis Power & Light Co. (IPL) would be on her property trimming trees. She claimed that they did not trim, but cut down entirely, 73 of her trees. When Easterday confronted the crew and poked a supervisor in the chest with her finger, she was detained in a squad car and threatened with arrest. Additionally, she was told if she were to step out of her house she would be arrested. Easterday claims the officer had been hired by IPL.

Many that testified at the hearing lamented the utility's lack of respect for property rights in spite of property taxes. Citizen lobbyist Charles Goodman, a critical figure behind the thrust that led to the investigation, claims that this is a large part of the problem with IPL and other electric utilities: they do not respect property rights.

The meeting was attended by City-County Councilwoman Cherish Pryor and State Senator Mike Delph. Both gave testimony. Pryor acknowledged the need for reliable power, but said that we "cannot allow people to be abused in this manner." Delph cited private property rights as a basic pillar of Democracy, and warned that problems occur when easements are overstepped into private property.

Other complaints in sworn testimony were vast and varied, ranging from utility failure to pick up of the debris IPL had created. Sloppy hack jobs of trees, inappropriate customer treatment, and improper and inconsistent trimming practices were also on the list of complaints.

According to Crystal Livers-Powers, Director of Corporate Communications at IPL, tree trimmings are done on a species specific basis in which species, location and voltage of surrounding lines are taken into account. In spite of this, Meg Felton claimed in her sworn testimony that her lilac tree was cut down completely. Many species of lilac tree are listed on the IPL website as "IPL compatible," a term which is based on a short maximum height.

Livers-Powers states that the tree trimming practices which IPL follows are standard from the American National Standards Institute. This claim was disputed by Phillip Ping, certified arborist, who claims that IPL practices are not up to industry standards, and that he is consistently stunned by the way they trim trees.

Other notable testimony was given by Mike Gahimer, energy manager of Duke Realty Company. Gahimer pointed to the fact that Duke, like many other companies, incurs cost due to blackouts, and that reliable service was a must for successful companies. Duke's and many other business's electric lines are buried, however, this does not matter if a home or business is down line of a blackout. Gahimer expressed his hope that this investigation would not lead to less reliability in power service.

Liver-Powers, who was in attendance at the meeting with several other IPL officials, echoed Gahimer's sentiment that safe and reliable power is and should be the company's primary focus.

Livers-Powers says that IPL recognizes this to be a difficult issue which they do not take lightly, and that they try hard to balance concerns. This contrasts to Pat Easterday's statements that the public hearing and investigation "aren't going to do any good, because IPL doesn't care."

In spite of differences of opinion, it was pointed out by one testimony that trees are an extremely important part of our urban landscape. Mary Ellen Gadski, who was appointed to the Indianapolis Tree Board by former Mayor Bart Peterson, gave some illuminating statistics concerning urban forestry.

The U.S. Forest Service conducted a municipal forest resource analysis in which they determined the number of street trees in Indianapolis to be far below the national average for similar sized metropolitan areas. Street trees are usually located in the right of way between street and sidewalk. Indianapolis has one street tree for every seven residents while the national average is one tree for every two residents.

The above statistic is significant due to the many benefits urban trees can provide to the community. Trees moderate climate and reduce energy costs, reduce CO2 and ozone from the atmosphere, and help decrease storm water runoff by taking up rain water. These benefits would be especially helpful to Indianapolis, which struggles to meet air quality standards and has faced the chronic problem of storm and sanitary sewer runoff in the White River, which compromises that river's integrity.

After the meeting Gadski said she was hopeful that something would be accomplished, adding that she was impressed with the commissioners on the IURC, whom listened attentively to testimony for nearly four hours at the public hearing.

The IURC will not make a decision in the matter until all the public hearings have been held. Electric utilities across the state are under their jurisdiction. The commission will take action after Oct. 7. A spokesperson for IURC says that this action could go in any direction.

Since the Sept. 2 meeting, another meeting was held on Sept. 8 in Seymour. Three more meetings are tentatively scheduled with times and locations to be determined: Merrillville, Sept. 23; Fort Wayne, Sept. 29; Evansville, Oct. 7.

Erosion threatens canal; plan draws ire

The plan proposed by Veolia and Indianapolis Water to shore up the eroding banks of the Indiana Central Canal from College Ave. to 52nd St. has drawn the ire of portions of the community. According to Indianapolis Water Communications Manager Paul Whitmore, the discussed area would be the first installment in stabilizing a larger section of the canal's banks.

The seven-mile-long Central Canal was built in the 1830s and carries 120 million gallons of water a day to the White River Treatment Plant. Burrowing animals, muskrats especially, contribute heavily to embankment instability.

Objections to the plan arise from an assumption that the project would sterilize a heavily vegetated and visually striking waterway that is also home to much wildlife. Travis Ryan, a researcher with Butler University, has studied the canal and estimates that it is home to at least 5000 turtles. Turtles in their nests could be disturbed by bank re-surfacing.

Whitmore emphasizes that Indianapolis Water is in the early part of the process and is working on gathering feedback from the community. There is a meeting for citizens concerned with the issue on Sept. 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the Broad Ripple High School Auditorium.

In order to stabilize the canal banks, the current plan by Indianapolis Water would incorporate a geo-textile mat covered by crushed stone. This would not mean that the entirety of the bank would be covered by stone; the plan specifies a minimum of one foot of vegetated slope downward into the canal from the top of the embankment before the stone would begin.

This is good news for those worried about the aesthetic look of the canal. The better news is that Indianapolis Water has not finalized anything and will be accepting public input. Whitmore cites public feeling that the plan is being pushed ahead recklessly as misguided. He contends that many changes can be made and Indianapolis Water welcomes input from its constituents.

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