New court ruling limits tree cutting across TVA service area, including Tri-Cities

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Aug 4, 2017 at 9:49 AM

Will TVA continue to cut large swaths of trees in Johnson City?

On Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan ruled that the Tennessee Valley Authority must stop chopping down trees in accordance with its “15-foot rule” near utility lines until they submit an environmental impact report that’s approved by the court.

This new ruling could affect every municipality within the TVA service area, including the Tri-Cities.

The TVA previously cut trees that had a potential mature height greater than 15 feet, which was considered overzealous by some residents throughout the region.

Litigation began in 2012 when residents from Westminster Place Subdivision in West Knox County joined in filing a lawsuit that claimed the TVA was removing too much vegetation and trees across people’s properties.

Travis Brickey, a spokesperson for the TVA, said this new ruling will apply to the “entire TVA service area,” and TVA is conducting its environmental impact report to look at “different alternatives.”

“We’ll certainly comply with the court order,” Brickey said. “We’ll look at the proposed policy and the impact of that policy, then we'll get input on that. Once that's completed, we’ll have the vegetation management policy that we’ll go forward with.”

It typically takes about 12 to 24 months to do a full environmental report, according to Brickey.

In the meantime, he said the TVA will do what it can to manage trees and vegetation around their high voltage transmission lines, which he said can often become potentially dangerous fire hazards if left unchecked.

As far as Brickey knows, this new ruling “doesn’t impact the distribution system like the Johnson City Power Board or other local power boards.”

According to an email statement from Tim Whaley, a spokesperson for the Johnson City Power Board, the utility has not yet considered how this will affect its vegetation management policies. While there are occasional criticisms from Johnson City residents, Whaley said residents often “request assistance in removal of failing or troublesome vegetation.”

“Currently, we have not had the opportunity to fully review the court decision in the Tennessee Valley Authority case, however, we do not anticipate having to make any changes to our public right-of-way maintenance program based on our understanding of the decision at this point," Whaley said.

According to the statement, the Power Board has been a member of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Line USA program, which often focuses on quality tree care, annual worker training, tree planting and public education.

Still, Whaley said “falling trees and limbs represent a major challenge to providing safe and reliable electric power,” so they recommend that homeowners plant low-growing trees near power lines instead.

“Proper maintenance of the public right-of-way saves money for customers over the long haul, reducing or eliminating outage costs and damaged infrastructure,” Whaley said. 

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