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‘Scorched earth policy.’ KU blasted by Lexington council, residents over tree cutting

·5 min read
Tree stumps were left in a median along Southpoint Drive near Nicholasville Road in Lexington in 2020 after clear-cutting.

Officials with Kentucky Utilities told the Lexington council Tuesday it would consider hitting pause on a controversial tree cutting policy that has razed dozens, if not hundreds, of trees under the utility’s transmission wires in Fayette County.

KU implemented a new policy in 2014 that called for the removal of trees taller than 10 feet under the utility’s larger transmission lines. That policy was largely implemented in more rural areas and started in 2019 in more urban areas, KU officials told the council during a work session.

But the practice has rankled Lexington city leaders, neighborhoods and tree enthusiasts for nearly two years. It’s a departure from KU’s previous efforts to trim trees under major transmission lines.

During Tuesday’s meeting, dozens of residents who have had trees cut or will have trees cut under the new policy asked the utility to consider modifications. Trim rather than cut down trees that pose no threat to a power line, some said.

In the Lakeside area, more than 200 trees will be cut down under one of the power lines, said Rob Walker. “It’s going to denigrate our neighborhood.”

There are even shrubs under 15 feet tall that KU has said need to be cut, Walker said.

“They are proposing to cut down 200 trees for no real reason at all,” Walker said.

Bobby Owens also lives in the area. Owens said KU redid the poles in 2007 and gave the neighborhood money to help replant some vegetation and “that they now want to cut down.”

Matt Harrison is slated to lose 11 to 12 trees on his property on Norborne Drive.

“But I will only get $250 per tree and will only be compensated for six trees,” Harrison said. “This seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Trees have extensive root systems — typically twice the size of a tree’s canopy. Those root systems help with stormwater runoff, said Rebecca Farris. The area, close to the reservoir, has extensive stormwater runoff issues, she said.

Lance Lawrence said he’s going to lose nine trees on his property on Norborne Drive but only two are near the power lines. KU’s clear-cutting was “scorched earth” policy, he said.

Will KU hit pause on tree cutting policy?

Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton said she met with KU officials on Monday. She has asked them to consider the following:

  • Consider changing and compromising on clear-cutting trees.

  • Have a more robust re-vegetation plan on private and public property.

  • Better notification to neighborhoods.

  • Study Kentucky geological maps to do a sinkhole analysis

  • To allow LFUCG input on the stormwater study in the Lakeside area to determine the impact of tree removal in that area

  • Pause while considering all requests that have been made

“I personally believe that in most cases, we don’t have to cut down these trees,” Gorton said.

Lexington has worked hard to increase its tree canopy and has been named a Tree City for more than 30 years.

“We don’t have local authority or oversight over KU,” Gorton said.

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council passed a resolution condemning KU’s tree cutting policy in October 2020. City officials have been able to get some concessions, including a monthly meeting with KU to go over tree-cutting plans on public property and in public medians. In Lansdowne-Merrick park, KU has agreed to hire a landscape architect.

David Freibert, vice president of external relations for KU, stopped short of agreeing to a temporary moratorium during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have heard the request for flexibility and review,” Freibert said. “We will be taking that back and looking at those programs.”

Safety or cost savings?

Kevin Montgomery, transmission right of way coordinator, said the company came up with the policy to reclaim its right of way under those transmission lines in 2014. A consultant recommended cutting trees that grow higher than 10 feet from under those lines and near those transmission lines.

Montgomery said there was no state of federal requirement to clear-cut trees.

Tree trimming is not an efficient way to keep those power lines safe and operational, Montgomery said.

“Continual trimming of trees is really not an option for us,” Montgomery said. “The growing season is longer. We have had wetter weather. We would go at different rates... We have 54 miles of lines to maintain.”

Moreover, KU did not want to implement one policy for trees under transmission lines in Lexington and have a different policy in other parts of the state. That would be too cumbersome to maintain, KU officials told the council.

“We aren’t Eastern Kentucky,” said Councilman Richard Moloney. In more rural areas, it’s more difficult to maintain tree and vegetation growth. There are also fewer houses in those areas. Lexington is dense with homeowners near those transmission and distribution lines.

Councilman David Kloiber agreed.

“We have a franchise agreement with you,” Kloiber said. That franchise agreement is specific to Lexington, he said. Moreover, the tree-cutting policy saves KU money in the long run because it won’t have to pay to continue to trim those trees.

Yet, KU continues to raise rates. Its last rate increase was approved earlier this year.

“This method that you have begun implementing will result in year-over-year cost savings to your company,” Kloiber said. “But in your last rate case, you were not looking to pass those savings back on to us, the rates went up.”

Councilwoman Susan Lamb represents the Lansdowne area. Lamb started raising questions about the tree cutting policy in March 2020. Trees will be cut along the Lansdowne Road median later this year. Those trees were KU-approved trees at the time they were planted.

On Tuesday, Lamb said she was furious that it took KU officials so long to address the council and residents’ concerns. It was only when trees were proposed to be cut down in the wealthier areas of town that those concerns got traction, she said.

It was too late for her district and other areas of the city KU had already clear-cut. Those areas include an area around Wilson Downing Road in the Lansdowne area. One property owner there lost 20 trees to the program, she said.

“The properties that I represent have already been massacred,” Lamb said.

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