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Editorial columns

A utility crew trims trees around power lines in southeast Fort Wayne. Homeowners have little recourse against actions taken in the name of utilities; the Indiana Tree Alliance is seeking changes to give homeowners additional rights.

Standing tall on behalf of Indiana’s trees

Utilities’ overreach sends homeowners in search of balance

As far back as 1995, communities across Indiana began to complain about abusive tree trimming by the state’s electric utilities. Little by little, the chorus of voices grew.

One small group on the north side of Indianapolis filed a class-action lawsuit.

A settlement was reached called Project Cooperation. Still, problems persisted, and the voices grew louder across the state.

A small group in Indianapolis then formed the Indiana Tree Alliance. Following meetings with elected officials, a petition was filed with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

A statewide investigation of the major electric utilities began in 2009, and, by 2012, a new law was created that is supposed to regulate the utilities’ vegetation management practices. This investigation exposed a host of problems, including illegal practices that Hoosiers face statewide. The new rule did not solve all the problems because the IURC is without authority to deal with them.

The following are just some of the issues:

•About 4 million Hoosiers have defective title insurance because residential title insurance fails to disclose utility restrictions\ easements on residential property or the presence of nearby gas transmission lines.

•About 1.5 million Hoosiers in smaller towns all across the state who receive utility service from utility companies that are not regulated by the IURC may have fewer property rights than folks in the larger cities served by IPL, Vectren, NIPSCO, I&M, and Duke,

Is this a form of unintended discrimination?

Quite possibly.

•The investigation revealed major failings by utilities to legally acquire easements for their uses on private land.

By doing so, utility companies have violated your constitutional rights and the constitutional protection against a taking without just compensation.

There are tens of thousands of victims of this utility policy statewide. The value of these easements is estimated by the utilities themselves to be in the billions of dollars.

•While the utilities try to maintain good will, should there be a dispute there is no local or state oversight allowed under state law concerning where utility facilities can be built.

The utilities have total control over the siting authority for the location of their facilities.

•Many additional issues critical to a more effective IURC, such as the inability to enforce its own rules and having no ability to assess fines, means IURC’s oversight is less effective in protecting Hoosier residents against abusive utility conduct.

Despite repeated requests by the Tree Alliance to have a review by the Joint House and Senate Utility Flex Committee of these issues so legislation could be drafted to address these deficiencies, the co-chairmen, Sen. James Merritt and Rep. Eric Koch, have chosen to deny any public discussion of these issues.

A coverup? Preferential treatment? You must decide.

At the very least, Hoosiers deserve to have an in-depth discussion to search for solutions. The public must demand and the governor and the legislature should demand a public hearing if we are to have solutions.

With basic constitutional rights at stake and billions of dollars involved, isn’t it time all Hoosiers learned the truth as these problems have gone on for so very long?

Charles H. Goodman is co-founder of the Indiana Tree Alliance. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.