WHEREAS, various agricultural sectors involving higher-growing woody vegetation combine to form approximately 40 percent of the total annual cash receipts of New Jersey agriculture; and
WHEREAS, crops grown in those sectors include woody plants that naturally mature to a height greater than 12 feet; and
WHEREAS, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and land values are perennially among the highest in the country, creating a need for our farmers to make the most of every acre of land to operate at maximum efficiency; and
WHEREAS, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) has established an administrative rule that prohibits woody vegetation that naturally matures to a height greater than 12 feet from being located in a utility’s right-of-way beneath high-tension electrical transmission lines; and
WHEREAS, because New Jersey has many such power lines, the cumulative effect of the rule and amendment is to significantly reduce the amount of land on which woody crops naturally maturing to a height greater than 12 feet may be grown; and
WHEREAS, that reduction of land on which these crops can be grown can severely impact an individual farmer’s ability to operate a viable farm enterprise; and
WHEREAS, electric power generators have begun strictly enforcing the rule and ordering producers growing such woody plants in rights-of-way under power lines to remove them, without compensation for the lost inventory; and
WHEREAS, public utilities may have easements or rights-of-way on these lands, but they have not purchased the land outright, and thus should not be overly restrictive as to the activities that occur under these power lines, provided those activities do not interfere with the transmission of electricity and do not block the utilities’ access to the lines; and
WHEREAS, we, the delegates understand that the NJBPU’s rule came into being as a result of a widespread power outage throughout the East Coast in 2003 after a power line in Ohio sagged and electricity arced to a tree that came within 20 feet of the non-insulated power line; and
WHEREAS, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has worked cooperatively with the NJBPU on many issues in the past, including the pursuit of biofuels production in New Jersey and the crafting of components of the State Energy Master Plan.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the we, the delegates to the 96th State Agricultural Convention, assembled in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on February 8-9, 2011, do hereby urge the Department and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, along with the electric power generators and transmitters in New Jersey, to work cooperatively to find a solution to the issue of woody plants under power lines that both protects producers’ ability to efficiently use the limited land available in New Jersey and also maintains the safety of our state’s residents and the integrity of the electric supply grid.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we urge that this solution be incorporated into the NJBPU’s rule through the proper administrative process so that it will have the force of law.
Vegetation Under Power Lines
The issue of vegetation under power lines surfaced in August 2003 after a massive electrical blackout in the Northeast that caused the loss of power to 45 million Americans and another 10 million Canadians.
Much finger-pointing between the countries and among the states impacted by the blackout raised any number of possible explanations for its origins – including lightning strikes and simple overloading of demand on a hot August day combined with outdated transmission equipment, leading a former U.S. Secretary of Energy to refer to America as “a superpower with a third-world electricity grid.” However, a final report issued in 2004 by U.S. and Canadian officials blamed the cause on power lines in Ohio sagging under a high energy demand and “arcing” to nearby trees.
This touched off a spate of utilities examining their height requirements for vegetation under high-tension lines, leading to a New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) rule that such vegetation be limited to three feet. In 2007, the Board proposed further tightening that regulation to call for “grasses or a low-growing compatible shrub/scrub plant community to obtain a meadow effect where possible.”
That touched off a backlash from the agricultural community, as power companies took the rule amendment’s proposal as a cue to begin aggressively enforcing the existing three-foot limit. Farmers contacted the New Jersey Department of Agriculture complaining of power company officials demanding the removal of vegetation over three feet in short time periods.
A negotiation between the Department and BPU resulted in an agreement to set the new limit at 20 feet, provided the vegetation did not directly interfere with electricity transmission or the utilities’ ability to access their rights-of-way. However, when the BPU adopted the final amendment, the language had been changed to a 12-foot requirement, not 20.