Storm Warnings

It’s Time To Cut Your Trees – Or Let FPL Do It

By J.P. Faber

June 2019

For those of you who survived the last hurricane that swept through the Gables – that would be Hurricane Irma in the fall of 2017 – you will recall how long it took to regain electricity in some parts of the city. The city was not happy with FPL’s slow response in restoring power, and less happy with its main- tenance of power lines leading up to the storm.

Those issues have now been resolved with FPL. While no monetary awards were given, an agreement in March did give the city a certain moral victory. In that agreement, the city acknowledged its responsibility for controlling and managing vegetation on the city’s public property, and that of its residents to do their part in controlling and managing vegetation on private property. But, most importantly, FPL reaffirmed its responsibility for maintaining the areas in the public rights of way in which FPL’s facilities are located, including easements, and areas adjacent to its facilities.

“For the city, this case was won at the motion to dismiss stage,” says City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos. “A circuit court rarely accepts jurisdiction.” The normal route for complaints against FPL is for the court to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction. The matter then goes to the state’s Public Service Commission, which is loaded heavily in favor of FPL.

The moral win for the city was that FPL admitted it was their responsibility to manage the vegetation in and adjacent to its easements (rights of way on private property). “That admission was significant,” says Ramos. The actual agreement with FPL came down to three things. First, that the city and FPL would hold workshops regarding vegetation management, at which FPL will explain its program, “Right Tree, Right Place.” Second, in the areas of the city that suffer power outages most frequently, FPL and the city will send representatives to do a visual walkthrough of the areas to
see what can be addressed to avoid future problems. (That has already started). Finally, the city will advise residents of the need to prune trees that are growing into the easements or could pose a threat to power lines now, at the start of the hurricane season.

But therein lies the rub. While the city can inform, advise, request and even cajole residents to allow FPL into their yards to trim the trees, private property owners are not legally bound to do so. On the other hand, it is a violation of city ordinance to deny FPL access to the easements. The city and FPL are working together to come up with procedures so that the city is aware of any violations and can assist FPL – because the power company must trim the vegetation that’s growing into easements or around the poles and power lines that are adjacent to private property.

The best solution, of course, is for citizens to maintain their own trees so they don’t become a problem. Otherwise they could experience the kind of tree hat-racking that FPL is notorious for. What is needed is educational outreach – which the city intends to launch in the coming weeks.

Coral Gables City Attorney Miriam Solar Ramos

Hurricane Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane of the 2017 season. A record 6.5 million Floridians evacuated from its path, including many Gables residents. For those who stayed, power loss was a major problem.