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Township of Piscataway v. Spectra Energy

2008 WL 4534187 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D. N.J. 2008) (Unpublished)

EASEMENTS; UTILITIES — Even though a pipeline utility company that is the beneficiary of an easement has the right to remove trees from the easement when necessary to provide for the safe maintenance of those pipelines, it cannot do so if removing the trees is not reasonable and the trees provide a benefit to the property owners and their neighbors.

A municipality and some homeowners sought to legally enjoin a utility company from removing certain of the homeowners’ trees from a short street. The utility asserted that removal of the trees was reasonably necessary to provide for the safe maintenance of three natural gas pipelines owned and operated by the utility within an easement running underneath the street and under the homeowners’ lawns. The homeowners responded that removal of the trees was not reasonably necessary and that the equitable doctrine of laches barred any removal because the utility company had never objected to the presence of the trees during the forty year life of the easement nor ever warned about their eventual removal.

The record indicated that the utility company conducted regular inspections of the pipelines and easement. It used a device inserted into the pipelines to measure and locate damage. The pipelines had been chemically treated prior to installation so as not to corrode over time. It also used a computer device to continuously monitor pipeline pressure. The utility company never found any problems. In addition, the utility company conducted regular aerial inspections except for a portion of the year when the trees had full canopies. At earlier times, it used a formal ground patrol system, later discontinued chiefly because of cost.

The record also indicated that the trees provided a benefit to the municipality and the street’s homeowners, as it cooled homes in the summer, blocked heavy winds, helped with drainage, and provided a sound barrier for traffic on nearby streets. Testimony was offered that the trees provided curb appeal to home values, and allowed for a place for children to play.

The United States District Court first held that the utility was not barred from asserting a right to remove the trees by virtue of waiting forty years to do so. According to the Court, the equitable doctrine of laches may only be enforced when the delaying party has had a sufficient opportunity to assert a right and the prejudiced party acted in good faith believing that the right had been abandoned. The Court was satisfied by the utility company’s explanations that the trees changed over time growing larger and denser, until they allegedly interfered with the inspection of the pipelines. This excused the utility company’s delay.

However, the Court concluded that the removal of the trees was not reasonably necessary for the safe maintenance of the utility’s pipelines. It found that there was no actual evidence that tree roots were close to interfering with the pipelines such as to require tree removal, as suggested by the utility. Additionally, the Court found removal of the trees would unduly burden the adjacent property owners. According to the Court, the utility company had a feasible, safe, and practical way to inspect the trees. It could employ a six month supplemental ground patrol of the single block in question during the season when the trees had full canopies. The Court found that such a supplemental inspection program would be a limited burden with a minimal cost because the street was only one block long and was near one of the company’s offices.

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