Power Play — How Utilities Can Lay Claim to Private Front Lawns
When an electric utility company informed a Westchester County resident that they were claiming part of her front yard to install a utility pole, NBC New York decided to investigate. They interviewed PN Real Estate Attorney, Nataly Goldstein for expert legal insight into utility easements.
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Disclaimer: Names have been changed for privacy purposes.
One neighbor couldn't believe it when she opened her mail in April. A letter from NYSEG, the electric utility serving northern Westchester County, informed her that the company would be claiming a small part of her front yard for the installation of a metal wire to stabilize a new, taller utility pole.
The wire would be anchored 12 feet deep onto her property — directly in the line of sight of her front door. To prevent people from tripping, the wire would also have a bright yellow covering — not exactly matching the rustic tranquility of this wooded Pound Ridge lot.
“Why, right in front of my front door, do I need something as offensive as that?”Neighbor
How could a private utility company commandeer part of someone's front yard without so much as a court hearing? It boils down to a decades-old agreement, called an easement.
The legal document, signed between NYSEG and a former owner of the property, allows the utility broad use of the yard in order to "construct, reconstruct, extend, operate, inspect, [and] maintain” a utility pole and the necessary wires to hold it up. Even though that easement was signed in 1930 —when the property was a farm — it is still in full effect.
“It was very upsetting to hear that an easement that was over 80 years old could be put into effect in a neighborhood that didn’t even exist when it was written.”Neighbor
Nataly Goldstein, a real estate attorney at Pardalis & Nohavicka, said property owners rarely win court battles over utility easements because the agreements “run with the land.” That is to say they remain in effect regardless of who owns the property or how the use of the land may change over the years. She said utility easements should be revealed in the title search process, but it’s generally safe to assume utilities have easements if there are power poles sitting on or adjacent to the property.
“There are a lot of [easements] out there, especially in the suburbs. You can visually see them yourself if you’re walking down the street — you see electric poles in peoples yards.”Nataly Goldstein
Toni Carlos, Vice President of Wescor Land Title and a member of the NY State Land Title Association, said a utility easement generally comes into being when the original developer hooks a property up to gas or electric service.
“Utility easements are given by the Town...So when the town approves a subdivision — years and years and years ago — the builder requests the easements."Carlos
According to the Westchester County Clerk’s Office, utilities have acquired more than 7,200 easements in the county since 1967. There are likely thousands more utility easements dating back to earlier years — but the Clerk’s Office couldn’t easily search for or quantify the older records.
Earlier this month, the neighbor filed a formal complaint with the New York Public Service Commission challenging the validity of the easement. But she says NYSEG could easily settle the matter informally — by reimbursing the cost of connecting her house to a different, less conspicuously placed power pole.
And she says the utility has the money to make such an accommodation.
Currently, NYSEG is asking New York State utility regulators for permission to raise electric rates by 23.7 percent. If approved, the rate hike would provide more than $150 million in new revenue. The power company says much of the new cash would help fund upgrades to things like power poles and electricity meters.
“If we’re paying for those changes, do it in a way where you’re not reducing our property values."Neighbor
So far, the utility is not budging.
NYSEG declined to answer general questions about its use of easements, but Michael Jamison, a company spokesman, said the easement on the neighbor's property is being used to replace an anchor wire that snapped — causing the power pole to tilt.
“Anytime NYSEG becomes aware of damaged equipment we work diligently to ensure that it is repaired to good working order. The guy-wire in question is not new and is actually a replacement of a previously installed anchor that was found to be damaged,” Jamison wrote in an email to the I-Team. “NYSEG prides itself on working with customers to try and find reasonable accommodations when concerns are raised. Ultimately though, the company must make certain that our equipment is properly secured to ensure the safety of the community and reliability of the system.”
Kevin Hansan, the Pound Ridge Town Supervisor, said he understands the objection to anchoring the power pole on her lawn, but he supports the utility’s right to use the easement.
“NYSEG serves all my residents,” Hansan said. “If that grid comes down in a storm because it wasn’t anchored correctly, all those residents are going to be in an uproar.”
After Hansan organized a mediation phone call between NYSEG and the neighbor, he said the utility offered to reduce the intrusiveness of the metal wire — now agreeing to anchor it a few feet closer to the homeowner’s property line.
The concession, though, didn’t satisfy the neighbor, who said utilities have an obligation, not only to strengthen the electric grid, but also to make those improvements in a way that respects local aesthetics. She said Pound Ridge and other towns should expect utilities to do more than simply keep the lights on and make repairs after storms.
”The Town Supervisor is way too easy on NYSEG. I think they operate out of fear that power would not be restored fast enough."Neighbor
A 2019 JD Power survey ranked NYSEG the worst of all New York and New Jersey big utilities when it comes to customer service.
The utility declined to respond when the I-Team asked about that survey.
In its request for a rate increase, NYSEG noted that its average electric bills are the lowest of the six investor-owned utilities in New York.
The Public Service Commission will decide on NYSEG's rate increase proposal by the Spring of 2020.