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Electric Slide

by Jennifer Rall

Urban Forestry Coordinator

Town of Wake Forest, NC


“It’s electric! Boogie, woogie woogie! But you know it’s there, here there and everywhere!”

I know I just gave you all a clue to my age with the above reference, and once you pick yourself up off the floor from laughing because you just pictured me with big 80’s hair, I do have a point to make.

Tree and utility conflicts are a serious issue that affects not only reliable electric service, but also the safety of the utility line workers, tree workers, and the health and beauty of our street trees. Knowing that trees are the greatest single cause of power outages, and everyone will agree that pruning for line clearance is not pretty, why are we still dealing with this issue in our cities and towns? What is the solution?

Part of the answer to both questions lies in the planning and design phases of development. City and county planners should look closely at their ordinance language. Do you have requirements or specifications regarding the placement of trees near utilities? Does your approved planting list specify trees and shrubs that are appropriate under or near utilities? What about a list of unacceptable trees? If it’s not stated clearly in an ordinance or specifications manual, you can’t always expect designers to know that planting an oak under an overhead utility line is not a good practice. If your community has an urban forester or arborist on staff, is that person involved in plan review? If not, then you need to bring that person into the plan review process. They can provide valuable input and catch potential tree and utility conflicts, as well as being a valuable resource for any tree-related issues in your community. If you don’t have the benefit of an urban forester, as a planner you can still ensure trees are not future issues by asking the designer to show any overhead utility lines on the landscape plan. Just knowing the location of utilities in relationship to the trees is a huge step toward preventing conflicts.

Regardless of whether a community has specifications regarding trees and utilities, designers and landscape architects can plan a role in preventing future tree and utility conflicts. It does require knowing a little about how trees grow, both above and below ground. Now, I’m not suggesting that you have to suddenly be a tree expert, but with a little researching on the internet, you can learn a lot about trees. Taking the time to know the mature height and crown spread of the tree will go a long way in preventing that oak, for example, from being planted under the power line. Showing the location of overhead utilities, street lights, storm drains, and other utilities on the landscape plan will help direct the thoughtful placement of trees and shrubs to ensure they function as intended and add beauty to the community.

There are many great references for planners, designers, landscape architects, and urban foresters to use to help guide the placement of trees near utilities. The Arbor Day Foundation’s “right tree, right place”  ( infographic provides a good visual reference for appropriate species and spacing of trees near utility lines. Duke Energy ( has great information regarding trees and utility rights-of-way. This information also applies to electric co-ops and municipal utility providers. For information on tree species selection, I often rely on the tree fact sheets 

developed by Dr. Ed Gilman from the University of Florida. The fact sheets provide information on the mature height and spread of a large number of tree species, including many cultivars. Armed with these key pieces of information, we can start making headway toward preventing tree and utility conflicts.

Let’s start sliding those trees away from power lines! “Are you coming with me? Come let me take you on a party ride, and I’ll teach you, teach you, teach you, I’ll teach you the electric slide!”