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McNutt v. Jersey Central Power & Light Co.

SOM-C-14044-04 (N.J. Super. Ch. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS; UTILITIES—The Bureau of Public Utilities, in the first instance, determines whether utility lines are safely located and any appeal of such a determination is to be taken to the Appellate Division.

A local power company had a longstanding easement to construct and maintain power lines on a property owner’s property. On one occasion, one of the company’s power lines blew down, caused a fire, and destroyed a barn. The barn’s owner then sued in the Chancery Division, requesting that the electrical lines be upgraded and moved at the utility company’s expense so that he could rebuild his barn. The owner also attempted to stop the utility company from trimming the trees around the power lines. The barn’s owner had already gone to the Bureau of Public Utilities and it had rejected his request to have the power lines moved and upgraded.

The utility company argued that the case should have been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. It claimed that all matters relating to the upgrade and relocation of electrical lines first had to be brought to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU). It also argued that when there are issues requiring the BPU’s special expertise, a court should defer to the agency and then apply the agency’s determination to the remaining issues. The issues in question dealt with the adequacy and safety of equipment on the barn’s owner’s property and the owner’s refusal to allow the company to trim trees around that equipment.

The Chancery Division found that the company had a right of way over the owner’s property to maintain its power lines. It was granted in 1929 by the barn owner’s predecessor in interest. The agreement clearly stated that the utility company could maintain the power lines on the barn’s owner’s property and could enter the property to trim any trees within ten feet of the power lines. Furthermore, the BPU had already told the barn owner that if he wished to rebuild his barn he would have to build it in another location or pay for the power lines to be moved. The Court concluded that unless the power lines were a danger to the public, the owner had no legal right to require the utility company to move the power lines at its expense. It pointed out that the BPU had already determined that the power lines at their current location were not a danger to the public. Thus, if the owner disagreed with the BPU’s determination, he needed to file an appeal with the Appellate Division, not the Chancery Division. For that reason, the Court dismissed the barn owner’s suit.

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