By Sarah Ruf | The Tennessean
The white house on the hill seemed almost perfect when Lewis Williams and his wife bought it two years ago. A grove of tall trees encircle the swimming pool in the Forest Hills backyard.
The trees provide plenty of shade for his young children and a natural wall blocking the view of a nearby Tennessee Valley Authority transmission tower.
But Williams fears someday soon his trees will be just a memory. TVA already has cut down his neighbors' trees that stand in the right of way of the towers owned by the power giant.
The 32-year-old said that without any shade, his children will not be able to play in the backyard. "We're going to have to move," he said.
Homeowners around Tennessee are facing similar dilemmas. Any tree in the full TVA right of way with the potential to grow higher than 15 feet in its lifetime will get the ax. TVA standardized the 15-foot rule for all of its power lines in 2008. Before, trees were just trimmed back and could remain as a buffer, especially near distribution lines with lower voltages such as the ones that run behind Williams' house.
Now, TVA enforces a harder line for both distribution lines and high-voltage transmission lines because electricity can arc across distances even if branches are not touching the powerful cables.
TVA changed the rules to be more fair to homeowners and consistent with federal regulations, said TVA spokesman Scott Brooks.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has set up guidelines encouraging companies to not use clear-cutting tactics, yet each company is free to set up their own policy.
Last month, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chair Jon Wellinghoff said in a statement that a minimum clearance must be maintained on lower-voltage transmission and distribution lines, but did not say how companies must enforce the standards.
TVA right of way specialist John Dooley says workers use several techniques to get rid of the trees, including mulching machines, chainsaws and herbicide.
Down the road from Williams, TVA began cutting trees behind Roger Jackson's house on Monday. The trees shielded the view of a tower that looms directly above a steep embankment.
"It's really insane," Jackson, 65, said. He is rallying the neighborhood to ask for exceptions for smaller trees.
But there are no exceptions, Brooks said. "If we have to take exceptions for every tree, it can be a gray area, and it creates all kinds of problems," he said.
A few homeowners in Knoxville and Chattanooga have been battling TVA for months. Both city councils passed resolutions asking TVA to scale back the tree-cutting guidelines. The rules also affect property owners across the seven states where TVA controls 16,000 miles of transmission power lines.
A Goodlettsville man is one of 11 plaintiffs in a Knoxville lawsuit against TVA.
Thom Warren, 64, said he made a promise to his dying father he would take care of their land. That included two trees his father planted decades ago.
"I may lose everything, but in the process, I'm going to fight it," he said of the trees' removal. "That's the only thing I care about."
Cedar stumps are all that's left of five trees in the right of way behind the Antioch rental property of Claude Bonds, 73. Back in April, TVA officials cut them down and left what Bonds called a mess.
Dooley said his crew mulched Bonds' property according to TVA standards. Bonds wanted the trees cleaned up instead of left behind to decay in the right of way.
"This stuff won't rot in 20 years, cedar won't," said Bonds, who has hired an attorney to look at possible litigation.
Part of the residents' confusion springs from past experiences with Nashville Electric Service, the local utility company that works on tree trimming. NES has trimmed some trees on Bonds' property but cleaned up the debris.
But TVA defends its practices. "It's not necessarily going to look like a manicured yard," Brooks said.
Residents are allowed to replace trees with shrubs, as long as they mature under 15 feet tall.
Back in Forest Hills, Williams is considering his options. "We are not going to stay there if there aren't any trees in my backyard."