David Hoppe

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:: Getting trimmed, tree-wise

IPL thinks we're saps

By David Hoppe

Nothing seems to make the corporate heart go pitter-pat like bad news. People lose their jobs and the stock market goes up. Credit runs dry and investment bankers get big bonuses.

Up in the Monument Circle executive suite of the Indianapolis Power and Light Co., better known as IPL, the bad news is that they may have to start telling their tree butchers to show a little restraint when it comes to hacking the limbs away from power lines on private property.

IPL has a history of loosing chainsaw-toting squads of tree butchers on our community. Stories abound here of homeowners departing their leafy green yards in the morning, only to return, at day's end, to chopped and ragged scenes of arborial mayhem.

You can practically feel entire neighborhoods cringe when an IPL tree trimming truck shows up in their vicinity.

Indianapolis, as we are so tiresomely reminded, doesn't have a lot of natural amenities - the shorelines or slopes that can be readily marketed as postcard views. What we do have are trees. Trees provide color and shade in the summer, form and protection in the winter. They clean the air and anchor the soil.

They also enhance property values.

So it's no wonder that a mad-as-hell and determined group of homeowners finally stood up last year and filed a complaint about what IPL does to trees with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. A 69 year-old gentleman named Charles Goodman is apparently a leader of this group. The story goes that he came home one day five years ago to find that half a sugar maple on his property had been whacked away.

In December, the IURC found in favor of the homeowners and ordered IPL to desist from tree trimming without consent until the end of May. Until then, the IURC is gathering additional testimony prior to rendering a final verdict.

The homeowners, of course, hope that the IURC will make its ruling permanent. The cornerstone of their case, apart from the visible damage to their property that IPL inflicts in the name of providing them with the juice to turn their lights on, is the fact that IPL is the only utility in Indiana that has been allowed to enter private property and trim or cut down trees without the homeowner's permission.

Got that? IPL is the only utility in the state that is allowed to enter private property to trim or cut down trees without the owner's permission. The Northern Indiana Public Service Co., serving Gary and Merrillville, doesn't have this permission; neither does Vectren in Evansville.

The homeowners want the IURC to make tree trimming guidelines uniform throughout the state, meaning they want IPL to abide by the same rules the other state-regulated utilities do.

Here's where things get interesting.

Last Wednesday the <I>Indianapolis Business Journal</I> reported that in case documents submitted as part of an evidentiary hearing on the case, IPL claimed that making a change to its tree trimming practices would cost the company $100 million. "Not only would such an eventuality strike a crippling blow to IPL's efforts to maintain a safe and reliable system through its current well-developed approach to tree trimming and removal, it would likewise be a crippling blow to IPL, ultimately borne by customers," wrote Teresa Morton of Barnes & Thornburg, IPL's attorney.

Who knew that riding roughshod over private property and treating trees as if they were giant weeds was saving us all so much money?

On first blush, Ms. Morton's statement can be read as a not-so-veiled threat. Make IPL do what every other utility company in the state does and central Indiana gets treated to financial Armageddon. It's an attempt to create a false choice between thoughtfully maintained neighborhoods and the need for safe, reliable electricity.

Other utilities respect private property and have managed to keep rates reasonable. When Gov. Daniels crows about the state's cheap utility costs, he's talking about the entire state of Indiana, not just the part serviced by IPL.

But perhaps Ms. Morton's threat, er, statement was more along the lines of a preview of coming attractions, the trailer for a disaster flick with the promise of a happy ending for a certain utility company. Given the current economy, it's hard to imagine the IURC ever granting IPL a massive rate increase. Changing IPL's "well-developed approach to tree trimming and removal" creates the trigger for a price hike IPL would probably like to see happen anyway. This way maybe it happens sooner instead of later.

I don't know when IPL was given its special dispensation to tool around town and butcher the trees in people's yards. It seems like the product of the kind of thinking that predominated around here in the 1950's and '60s, when it was all the rage to tear down historic buildings and replace them with parking lots. With any luck, come May, the IURC will put an end to this practice and make IPL behave like every other utility in Indiana.

They may say otherwise, but this won't bother IPL one bit.