Rights of Way Are Not Roadways
June 21st, 2010 by Ruralite

Utilities need open space and easy access to power poles and other infrastructure for routine maintenance and emergencies

Public recreational use of utility rights of way is illegal.

Public recreational use of utility rights of way is illegal.

Imagine going to work and finding your workspace cluttered with debris: stacks of other people’s paper, office furniture blocking your computer, heavy industrial bins jammed in front of your power tools or farm equipment, electronics broken and in need of repair.

Before you can begin the workday, you have to rearrange everything and make repairs, possibly causing injury in the process, but certainly wasting time.

This is the kind of scenario utility workers encounter when people abuse rights of way.

The open space around power poles, transformers and meters is necessary for utility workers to do their jobs quickly and efficiently.

When homeowners plant shrubs that block a meter or trees that interfere with power lines, it requires extra work for a utility to provide service. When recreationists rip up rights of way by using them as an off-road race track, it makes access more difficult and creates safety concerns.

Ultimately, additional costs borne of rights of way abuse must be covered by a utility and likely passed on to ratepayers.

A right-of-way agreement with a property owner allows utilities access to utility equipment for service and repairs. The space, however, is still private property and not open to the public.

“We have individuals using them for ATVs,” says Nancy Favors, customer service manager at Nushagak Cooperative, based in Dillingham, Alaska. “Running them up and down the right of way upsets property owners. They run ATVs in the summer and snow machines in the winter.”

Favors says repetitive reminders that rights of way are off limits to the public is beneficial in maintaining good relations with property owners. It also is important for safety issues.

“Some of our poles have guy wires,” Favors says. “If you don’t see the guy wire, you could have an accident. You would not only tear up your machine, but could cause personal injury.”

Favors also worries about snow berms that get piled up around power poles. Berms near Dillingham schools that grow during winter become piled so high that children playing on the mounds come dangerously close to overhead lines.

Regular Trimming Minimizes Outages

Maintaining a buffer zone near power poles is always important. Tree and brush trimming is one of the most challenging and expensive maintenance items for utilities that serve areas with many residential trees or have lines passing through forest land.

Trees and tree limbs are conductors of electricity and increase the potential for fires, blinking/dimming lights, power outages and personal injury.

Northern Lights Inc., based in Sagle, Idaho, spends about $1 million a year to clear trees and limbs from overhead and underground power line rights of way.

“Enjoying the lush forests and the trees is a big reason many of us live in northern Idaho,” says Northern Lights General Manager Jon Shelby. “But trees and overhead power lines do not mix, especially during wind and snowstorms. Tree-related outages are an inconvenience and expensive for our members. That is why Northern Lights has professional tree contractors and a certified arborist on staff to assure rights-of-way maintenance tree trimming is done in an professional manner.”

Electric utilities ask property owners not to trim trees near power lines. If a tree is growing into a line, contact your utility. A crew also will assess the situation for other dead or overgrown vegetation that pose a threat to power lines and work with the property owner to remove it.

Homeowners can take a proactive approach to rights of way maintenance simply by buying trees and shrubs whose growth habits will not interfere with utility equipment and service operations.

When landscaping near power lines, it is important to remember that trucks and equipment need enough room to access electrical facilities. Gardens planted in rights of way can be damaged when utility work is performed.

Fences are important and often necessary for a property owner’s privacy. If a fence is built around the perimeter of a lot so it crosses or runs adjacent to a power line, use the following guidelines:

  • Do not pile or stack building materials in the right of way.
  • Do not attach fencing or posts to power poles.
  • Retain a minimum distance of 10 feet from all poles or underground transformer boxes.
  • Gates should be at least 12 feet wide for truck access. Utilities will need a lock key or combination for locked gates.
  • By respecting rights of way, ratepayers can help ensure they continue to receive quality service and an uninterrupted flow of electricity.