The city of Lexington is suing Kentucky Utilities over its practice of razing trees under major transmission lines after more than a year of trying to get the utility giant to reconsider its vegetation policy.
During a Tuesday Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council work session, the council voted unanimously to put a resolution on its meeting agenda to give the city’s lawyers the green light to take legal action against KU.
In a press release, the city also said it will file a complaint with the Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities. The city said it will file a complaint in the courts for an immediate injunction to stop KU’s tree cutting while its complaint is pending before the Public Service Commission.
Neither action has been filed yet, city officials said Tuesday.
“Over the past year we have been working with KU to try to find a way forward that protects our trees and our electric grid because clearly both are important,” Mayor Linda Gorton said. “Sadly, the company has not shown our city respect in return. With few exceptions they have ignored our requests. Yesterday, the company again started cutting down trees indiscriminately. Trees that could not possibly interfere with transmission lines.”
The move came one day after a woman was arrested by Lexington police at a protest on Lansdowne Drive over the cutting of trees in the median of the busy connector road in south Lexington. KU has said it will replant trees on the median next week. The trees axed yesterday were planted with KU’s approval several years ago.
City officials, neighborhoods and environmentalists have pleaded with the utility for more than a year to consider returning to trimming trees rather than cutting them down.
Daniel Lowry, a spokesman for KU, said not all trees over 15 feet are immediately cut down. There are some trees that are over 25 feet under the transmission lines. It depends on the height of those transmission lines.
For example, some of the crab apple trees on Lansdowne may not seem like they are a threat but they are, Lowry said.
“Those trees can grow another 10 feet,” Lowry said. “But the power line is at 41 feet and can sag an additional four feet. For our crews to work on a line, they have to have 15 feet clearance between the tree and the line.”
If the tree is in the way, those KU utility workers who have to work on those lines are too close, he said. It’s dangerous for KU crews, he said.
“Lives matter to KU,” Lowry said. “Trees matter to KU. Every place where we have cut trees we have replaced them with compatible trees.”
Claims that KU’s tree cutting policy is driven by greed are inaccurate and just not true, Lowry said.
“That is an unfair statement. It has nothing to do with costs. It is not about us saving or making money. This is about the safety and reliability of the system,” Lowry said.
In a Nov. 23 letter to Mayor Gorton, KU and LG&E President John Crockett III said the one out of every six outages in the Lexington area are caused by vegetation issues. Moreover, it’s more aggressive tree cutting policies has decreased outages by more than 40 percent, he said.
Councilman David Kloiber attended Monday’s protest. Kloiber said KU has been unwilling to consider trimming trees that can grow taller than 10 feet and instead has opted to clear-cut them.
That decision is not based on safety. It’s based on profits, he said.
It’s cheaper for the utility giant to chop trees down than continuously trim trees, he said, blasting the practice as “unchecked greed” from a “local monopoly.”
Those profits will go to a private company that has no competition, Kloiber said.
The city does not have the power to stop KU from cutting down trees, Gorton said.
KU is cutting trees under transmission lines that are largely in the utility’s right-of-way.
Lowry said the utility has met with city officials, neighborhood associations more than 19 times over the past year to address concerns. It is replanting trees that it cuts.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Lowry said. “We aren’t hiding. We have been accessible to the mayor, to the council and to neighborhoods.”
It’s not clear what type of complaint the city plans to file with the Public Service Commission, which has previously said it has limited jurisdiction over the utility’s tree-trimming policies.
Gorton said the city is also asking state lawmakers for some relief.
“We are talking to our legislators, asking them to pass new legislation that will force the utility to work with us,” said Gorton. “In the meantime we are hoping to find some relief from the courts.”