ERLANGER, Ky. -- A dispute between a Northern Kentucky business owner and Duke Energy over the utility's right to remove trees from private property is a quarrel that may ultimately ripple through Duke's 360,000 energy customers in the Tri-State.
The dispute pits the property owner's defense of his land's aesthetics against the utility's need to control costs and ensure reliable energy delivery.
Duke wants to remove 26 full-size trees on Doug Brendamour's B&K Group property on Dolwick Road in Erlanger. Not trim or otherwise manage, but remove.
Duke visited the facility in May 2016 to announce its intentions, and it's been almost a year of back and forth between the two parties.
Duke's plan came about largely because of a shift in policy by the federal government -- and thus Duke, it says -- that goes back to 2003, when a good portion of the northeastern United States experienced blackouts of varying duration all caused by a tree branch coming into contact with a transmission line in Ohio.
Those same kinds of transmission lines, the ones stretching from the gray towers that connect 8,300 miles worth of Duke-serviced customers in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, are what are in dispute here. Since 2003, regulations and regulatory bodies have come into play to help prevent the repeat of such a blackout scenario.
Brendamour -- who's been at the 136,000-square-foot Erlanger site since 1990 and owns three other warehouses in the Tri-State, two of which are in Ohio -- says there has to be a better way.
"If you're out in some desolate area, not around densely populated communities, your philosophy is not damaging people if you want to cut everything down," he said. "When you're doing this in communities, I think you have to be a good steward of our environment and our community. You just don't ravage and devastate this path."
Duke spokesperson Lee Freedman countered, however, that "the trees on this customer's property have required more frequent, off-cycle trimming due to their accelerated growth and proximity to our transmission lines. This type of work can be hazardous to crews and carries substantial costs that are borne by all of our Kentucky customers -- not just those who have trees planted in our rights-of-way."
Part of Brendamour's argument is that the right-of-way or easement was established in 1937 and provided a one-time payment of $100 per tower. Under a proposal from Duke to Brendamour, he would be paid $200 per tree removed, or $5,200.
In one written response to Duke, Brendamour agreed to let the utility remove the trees but also states that he will not waive his right to take action afterward. He says the payment will not be accepted, because he thinks Duke's proposal "permanently revises and expands" the 1937 easement.
"They have not come on our property yet to cut the trees down," Brendamour said. "We hope they will change their position and trim the trees, which would be acting as a better steward of our environment and communities. If Duke enters our property to cut the trees down, they will not be stopped at this time, but we reserve our rights."
For its part, the Kentucky Public Services Commission would seem to back Duke's position, but also carefully noted that it would act as arbitrator if a plausible case against Duke's measures were presented. There has been no formal filing of a complaint.
"Electric utilities have the right to manage vegetation in rights-of-way or easements that they have for their lines," said Andrew Melnykovych, communications director for the PSC, who also referenced the 2003 blackout. "If the lines in question are high-voltage transmission, then the utilities are required by federal regulations to maintain minimum clearance distances that increase with the voltage of the lines. That generally requires keeping any sizable trees out of the vicinity of the lines."
Duke's policy is to prohibit trees of any kind and allow shrubs and other plantings no more than 7 feet in height under its transmission "wire zone" and trees not over 15 feet in that wire's "border zone."
Brendamour has taken photos of a site on Wooster Pike in Ohio that he says shows the effect of Duke's removal of trees under the lower-priority, regular distribution lines that aren't as high overhead. He says that a tree's natural effect of keeping the land in place is clearly undermined in the photos.
Freedman says Duke has separate guidelines for distribution lines and that in cases like Wooster Pike, determinations are made on a case-by-case -- and sometimes, tree-by-tree -- basis.
"I enjoy the natural aspects of the community," said Brendamour, who said he wanted other property owners who have problems with tree removal to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Part of it is a passion there, and part of it is that they need to not do what they're doing," he said.
Being compensated for the loss of his trees would be a step in the right direction, he said.
"That would be the fair thing to do," he said. "It's just like eminent domain. You have the right to buy somebody's property for the benefit of the rest of the community. I think Duke needs to be more community-conscious when they're doing this stuff."
Duke notes that not all of its transmission lines run across private property, and its plan is to clear trees from under those lines as part of its policy by 2020.
Freedman also said that some of Brendamour's neighbors near the Dolwick property offered to clear the trees themselves when informed of the plan, but that Duke declined their offer. He declined to name the neighbors who made the offer.