Maryland's Public Service Commission chairman criticized the Montgomery County Council president Tuesday for trying to enact county regulations that he said would "undercut" what state regulators are trying to do to improve electric service reliability.
The bill seeks to balance residents’ rights and tree protection with system reliability, Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said Monday during a meeting with the press.
It restricts which trees can be removed by a utility, requires utilities to file a vegetation management plan with the county, provide notice (including a consumer bill of rights) to affected property owners and occupants, and obtain their written consent prior to performing vegetation management on private property.
The bill also allows utilities to ask Montgomery County to review and authorize the removal of trees on private property that pose imminent hazard to a utility's reliability. If the county finds that the tree is a danger to the system, it could, under the bill, authorize the utility to remove it without property owner or occupant approval. If a tree is taken down by a utility, the bill requires the utility to grind the stump.
"It starts off as a bad idea whether it's legal or not," said PSC chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian, referring to disagreements about whether the county has the authority to impose such requirements on utilities. "I have to tell you that I'm pretty irked that after all the county's justifiable anger about reliability, to have the county try to promulgate its own legislation now.”
At the hearing, the commission adopted new reliability regulations, including tougher mandates for trimming trees where they can fall onto power lines and interrupt service.
Nazarian said that for the chief sponsor of the bill, Berliner, who has testified in Annapolis about the need for the PSC to "hold Pepco's feet to the fire" to now be sponsoring legislation that would complicate vegetation management, "strikes me as ironic at best."
Representing Montgomery County, attorney Edward B. Lattner said the county has authority to manage its rights-of-way and that the county legislation would apply to power lines along county roads.
"I would ask the Montgomery County Council to consider carefully what they are trying to accomplish," Nazarian said.
Monday, Berliner explained the bill’s purpose.
"It’s very limited in scope but felt like, on balance, it provided a balanced approach to this whole set of issues in which we do want more reliable service but we also want to respect private property owners, and we want Pepco to do their work in an environmentally sensitive way.”
Provisions of the county bill would allow for less tree trimming, Nazarian said, and that could undermine reliability improvements that state regulators are trying to push utilities to achieve. Utilities could be put in the position of having to choose whether to violate state regulations or county regulations.
If the proposal — introduced by the council Tuesday morning — goes forward, issues of state and county regulatory authority are "going to get hashed out in the courts," Nazarian said.
The bill is tentatively scheduled for a public hearing on June 12.