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Lexington ups pressure on Kentucky Utilities to stop clear-cutting trees

·5 min read

Lexington wants Kentucky Utilities to sign a memorandum of understanding that would allow city arborists to be contacted when trees are cut under power lines on city property and in rights-of-way, including medians.

If KU does not sign the memorandum, the city could pass an ordinance requiring the utility giant to bury all power lines at its own cost.

“We do have the ability to have those lines undergrounded,” said Councilman David Kloiber, who introduced the proposed memorandum on Tuesday. “We are not considering it today.”

Instead, Kloiber said the better option is a memorandum of understanding.

The proposed agreement was introduced during Tuesday’s Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council Environmental Quality and Public Works Committee meeting. Kloiber said the resolution passed out of committee Tuesday allows Mayor Linda Gorton to begin negotiations on a possible memorandum of understanding.

Gorton has been meeting with KU to address repeated concerns over KU’s tree removal practices throughout Lexington.

The proposed memorandum approved Tuesday is a possible agreement framework and will show KU that Gorton has the council’s support, Kloiber said.

During Tuesday’s work session, Gorton said Kloiber only talked to her Monday, the day before introducing the resolution, to ask her about her communications with KU officials.

Gorton said she already asked KU to contact council members and neighborhoods before cutting trees. Gorton also said she had asked KU officials to contact the city’s arborists before cutting trees.

“I’ve been extremely proactive,” Gorton said. “I’ve been doing in good faith what this resolution says anyways.”

Councilman Fred Brown voted against the measure, saying Gorton should have been consulted sooner and KU did not have the opportunity to explain why they were cutting trees. KU did not keep up its tree management more than a decade ago, which resulted in widespread power outages during an ice storm in 2003, he said.

Councilman Susan Lamb also opposed the measure because Gorton is already doing everything the proposed agreement has in it.

The proposed agreement states:

  • 30 days before beginning work, KU will provide a city arborist an inventory of all trees to be cut, including the species of trees.

  • KU will meet with the city arborist 30 days prior to cutting to determine if there are alternatives to cutting those trees.

  • KU will work with the city to develop a “zero net” canopy tree loss to replace trees that must be cut down due to legitimate safety concerns.

The agreement does not apply to private property. It also is specific to Fayette County.

KU will have the ultimate say on what can and cannot be axed, but communication with the city could improve, Kloiber said.

“Additionally, the agreement does not prohibit the utility from adopting these policies across the entire city, which is something we are hopeful would happen once we get policy moving in that direction,” Kloiber said.

A net-zero canopy tree replacement policy replaces more than just the tree. It also factors in the benefit of the tree canopy, he said. There is a national tree benefit calculator that can be used to determine a tree’s benefits.

“In adopting a net-zero canopy policy we would be asking the utility to do more than just replace trees on a stem for stem or 1 to 1 basis, but instead replace the benefit being lost using the national tree benefit calculator,” Kloiber said.

Daniel Lowry, a spokesman for KU, said KU has not yet seen the city’s proposal but the utility has been working with the city, neighborhoods and others to address KU’s tree and vegetation management around power lines.

“In the meantime, I would add that we are in communication with Mayor Gorton and other city officials, are discussing the city’s concerns, and, as part of our policies, past and ongoing efforts, we have been in communication and continue to meet with individual customers, neighborhood associations, LFUCG forestry officials, as well as city council members during our necessary vegetation management efforts,” he said.

Councilman Richard Moloney said he supports trying to get more cooperation from KU, but he is worried KU is going to raise rates on Fayette County customers if the city’s new agreement requires additional tree replacements.

“They never have to pay for it,” Moloney said.

David Barberie, a lawyer for the city, said the city can require KU to underground all utility lines. But that would likely cost millions of dollars.

“Ultimately, the customer always pays,” said Barberie.

The city, neighborhoods and KU have been at odds for more than a year over KU’s policy to clear-cut trees taller than 10 feet from under transmission lines and 15 feet under distribution lines — or lines that carry power to people’s homes.

It’s not known how many trees have been axed but the issue came to a head when the utility clear-cut trees on Southpoint Drive in South Lexington in July 2020, causing an uproar from residents, arborists and city officials.

In October 2020, the council passed a resolution condemning KU’s “extreme and unilateral tree removal practice” in the city’s rights-of-way and in neighborhoods where branches posed no immediate threat to power lines.

The resolution had no teeth, and the clear-cutting of trees continued.

KU has maintained the policy is not new. It’s now being enforced. Cutting those trees will help maintain the city’s power grid and keep the power on, it has argued.

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