Fair Go: Northland man frustrated he's got to foot bill to make sure totara trees keep clear of powerlines

Power lines are everywhere, and as our demand for power goes up, more and more trees are under threat.

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We take a look into whether this is fair. Source: Fair Go

Among those are a row of treasured totara owned by Jorgen Knudsen in Whangārei.

They're next to a line of power poles that he thinks should never have been put so close to the trees.

For 20 years, he's been fighting Northpower, asking them to move the poles to the other side of the road where no trees are growing at all.

Jorgen bought the land in 1986. The totara provided ample shelter for the macadamia nut farm he hoped to develop when he retired.

He asked Northpower why they'd put the poles among the trees. They told him they didn't know.

Fair Go asked the same question, and the answer was that it may have been to line up with poles further down the road.

But further down the road, the lines crossover anyway. Jorgen had his own theory, "the only thing I can think of is it might have been cheaper".

At least at that time the power poles were low voltage, which meant the trees only had to be cut back if they came within a metre of the poles, so not too damaging.

But as demand for power increased, Northpower increased the voltage carried, meaning the trees had to be cut back whenever they came within four metres.

Jorgen believes established native trees deserve much better protection and took his case to the company in 2011.

They made a suggestion that they could perhaps "side arm the power lines to bring them further away from the trees." But much to Jorgen’s dismay they haven’t done this.

Worse still he says, "there's always been pressure to agree for Northpower to fell the trees and that's what all the neighbours have done". But Jorgen can't bear to do that.

This leaves Jorgen, who's now a pensioner and volunteer counsellor, with another problem. Under the Electricity (Hazards from Trees) Regulations 2003 he is responsible to pay for the tree cutting after the first cut.

That's a regular bill of about $3500 – how often depends on how quickly the tree grows, so it could be every four years or less frequently like every nine years.

In addition he has to clean up all the debris left at his own expense.

Jorgen describes himself as a "stubborn old bugger" and has managed to get two further cuts paid for, one after a direct dispute with the company, the other after going through the Utilities Disputes complaint process. 

But the agreement after that was that no further dispute would be brought leaving Jorgen, then his children and grandchildren, responsible for all future costs, which is quite a substantial additional bill on top of his rates.

Jorgen thinks this is unfair as he firmly believes the trees were there first. Their diameter suggests they are between 90 to a 100 years old.

Neighbours have confirmed the trees were indeed there a long time before the power lines were put up.

He says if this is the case, the power company should pay. Whereas if trees are planted after power poles are in place then he believes it's a reasonable request for the landowner to pay.

However, although Northpower made a profit after tax of $23 million last year, they say they are owned by 60,000 customers and therefore have to be very careful with passing costs on, and in a sense it's immaterial as they have the law on their side.

But there is a little good news for Jorgen. The Government has committed to a review of this law and are requesting submissions on the matter.

Jorgen hopes others who feel strongly about native trees will make a submission seeking guarantees for their future protection.

In the meantime, Fair Go warns anyone buying a property to take this hefty extra bill into account if the land has power poles and trees close together.

Fair Go also have a heartfelt plea to power companies to think long and hard before putting their power lines among trees that deserve to be protected.