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Trees and Shrubs for Overhead Utility Easements



Authors as Published

Bonnie Appleton, Extension Specialist, Virginia Tech; Susan French, Research Specialist, Virginia Tech; Brenda Johnson-Asnicar, Graduate Student, Hampton Roads AREC, Virginia Tech; Diane Relf, Horticulture, Virginia Tech; Susan Day, Forestry, Virginia Tech; Richard Nunnally, Chesterfield VCE; and Jon Vest, Roanoke VCE

Trees are valuable assets in commercial, private, and public landscapes. Trees add aesthetic beauty, modify and enhance the environment, serve architectural and engineering functions, and increase property and community economic values. These same trees that enhance landscapes, however, are a major challenge for utility companies. Most people have grown accustomed to reliable, uninterrupted electric, telephone and cable service in their homes and offices. Unfortunately, trees are one of the major causes of power outages in areas of overhead utility lines due to direct tree contact with lines, or to trees or tree limbs falling on the lines.



image1.jpg Tree limb burned by contact with utility wires.


When trees contact live wires they become conductors of electricity, causing power outages or creating dangerous situations for anyone coming in contact with the trees. Utility companies spend over $1.5 billion annually on labor and materials for tree pruning and removal. This maintenance work is necessary to protect the public and utility company employees who service the lines, and to insure safe, reliable electrical service. While we don't want to risk losing this service, many of us dislike seeing trees removed or compromised in order to provide the service. The practice of planting tree species with potentially inappropriate mature heights, or erecting utility lines where tall trees already exist, greatly increases these problems. In addition, utility companies incur public relations problems and costs due to criticism of tree management within easements.

Misshapen tree canopies due to necessary line clearance pruning.


Conflict resolution options

Line clearance methods for existing utility line/street tree conflicts, such as natural, lateral, and directional pruning, have been developed to minimize the impact of pruning on tree health. Unfortunately, people often find this necessary pruning to be aesthetically unacceptable. Because of the inherent danger of electric lines, any pruning needed within easement areas should only be carried out by arborists trained in line clearance pruning, never by homeowners. Additional options for dealing with utility line/street tree conflicts include the use of tree growth regulators, tree height control by pollarding (yearly pruning back to one trunk or branch area), and initiation of tree pruning far in advance of tree-line interception. Each of these options tries to prevent future conflict situations, but is still costly maintenance. Whole tree removal eliminates the conflict but negatively impacts the environment and community.



image5.jpg Directional pruning for line clearance.


image6.jpg Trained arborist removing limbs in utility easements.


image7.jpg Large sycamore trees pollarded to keep them from infringing on utility lines.


The best approach is to prevent street tree/utility line conflicts from arising in the first place. Where practical, new utility lines can be constructed to avoid potential conflicts with trees either by installing lines underground or routing lines to avoid existing trees. Selection of appropriately sized trees prior to planting is critical to the trees' successful co-existence with overhead utility lines. This option is available to anyone involved with landscape design and installation - city planners, landscape architects, designers and contractors, arborists, and private homeowners. Proper selection and planting of trees near overhead utility lines can improve the appearance of the landscape, prevent safety hazards, improve electric service reliability, and reduce line clearance expenses for utility companies and their customers.


image8.jpg Crape myrtle, a large shrub or small tree that can be used under overhead lines.


image9.jpg Tall, upright trees can be planted along, but never under, overhead lines.


Tree selection and planting

Before planting new trees, look overhead and all around the intended site. Note how far the tree planting site is from overhead utility lines. For plant selection, determine whether the proposed planting site falls into a low, medium or tall tree height zone (Figure 1.). The low height zone extends 15 feet on either side of overhead wires. Plant large shrubs and small trees with mature heights of 20 feet or less within this area. To account for the width of taller trees, the medium height zone begins at least 15 feet from all utility lines and may include the area that frames a building or residence. Select trees that grow 40 feet or less for this zone. The tall height zone begins at least 35 feet from buildings and 65 feet from utility lines. Tall trees need additional space to permit adequate root development and to minimize structural storm damage. Select trees that grow taller than 40 feet for this area. Use tall trees in wooded lots, parks or other open areas where their height and spread can be appreciated without becoming a liability.



When selecting a particular tree species, consult a reference that will provide the tree's mature height and spread. When selecting urban trees, avoid those that require high maintenance (frequent pruning, control of major pest problems, etc.) or drop messy fruits, leaf litter and twigs. Look for trees that can tolerate generally adverse urban conditions (limited soil volume and moisture, compacted soil, air pollution, etc.), and that have a slow to moderate (never fast) growth rate. Always follow proper tree and shrub planting guidelines (see VCE Publication 430-295) and call MISS UTILITY (check your local phone directory) before you dig any planting hole.

At the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach, a Utility Line Arboretum showcases small trees and large shrubs for use in or near utility easements. Selection and availability of alternative trees and shrubs will improve with greater industry and public awareness of utility line issues.

When selecting "utility line" trees and shrubs, plant several different genera and species to avoid pest (insect and disease) and physiological (weather, chemical, etc.) problems that can easily kill off plantings of single species or cultivars (monocultures).

The utility Line Arboretum at Virginia Tech's Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center.



Common nameLatin nameCold hardiness/heat tolerance zonesAve. mature height
Low Height Zone - Under Utility Lines
Trees that generally do not exceed 20 feet in mature height, or that may need infrequent crown height reduction.
Amur mapleAcer ginnala2-8/7-115'-18'
Globe Norway mapleAcer platanoides 'Globosum'4-8/8-315'-18'
ServiceberriesAmelanchier arborea, A. canadensis4-9/9-415'-30'
Chinese fringetreeChionanthus retusus6-8/8-515'-25'
White fringetreeChioanthus virginicus5-9/9-510'-20'
Pagoda dogwoodCornus alternifolia4-8/8-115-25'
Cornelian cherryCornus mas 'Spring Glow'5-8/8-320-25'
Leprechaun ashFraxinus pennsylvanica 'Johnson'4-9/9-115'-18'
Little Gem magnolia*Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem'7-9/9-310'-20'
Saucer magnoliaMagnolia x soulangiana6-9/9-615'-25'
Star magnoliaMagnolia stellata5-9/9-56'-20'
Flowering crabappleMalus spp.4-8/8-110'-30'
Cherry plumPrunus cerasifera 'Thundercloud'5-9/9-415'-20'
Siebold viburnumViburnum sieboldii4-8/8-515'-20'
Large shrubs that can be pruned into tree form for use under overhead utility lines.
Althea/rose of SharonHibiscus syriacus5-9/9-18'-12'
Crape myrtle*Lagerstroemia indica7-9/9-7/610'-25'
Doublefile viburnumViburnum plicatum var. tomentosum6-8/8-66'-15'
Blackhaw viburnumViburnum prunifolium3-9/9-112'-20'
ChastetreeVitex agnus-castus6-9/9-18'-15'
Medium Height Zone - Near Utility Lines
Trees that generally exceed 20' in mature height; if used under easement will require more frequent pruning if planted in good growing location.
Trident mapleAcer buergeranum5-9/9-320'-25'
Hedge mapleAcer campestre5-8/8-425'-35'
American hornbeamCarpinus caroliniana3-9/9-120'-35'
White redbudCercis canadensis 'Texas White'6-9/9-620'-30'
Kousa dogwoodCornus kousa5-8/8-320'-30'
Stellar dogwoodCornus x rutgerinensis5-8/8-320'-30'
Thornless cockspur hawthorneCrataegus crus-galli var. inermis4-7/7-120'-30'
Washington hawthorneCrataegus phaenopyrum4-8/8-125'-30'
Carolina silverbellHalesia diptera5-8/8-430-40'
GoldenraintreeKoelreuteria paniculata6-9/9-625'-35'
Galaxy magnoliaMagnolia x 'Galaxy'6-9/9-620'-30'
Merrill magnoliaMagnolia x loebneri 'Merrill'5-9/9-525-30'
SourwoodOxydendron arboreum5-9/9-420'-40'
Persian parrotiaParrotia persica4-7/7-120'-40'
Chinese pistachePistacia chinensis6-9/9-630-35'
Flowering apricotPrunus mume6-8/8-620'-25'
Okame cherryPrunus x 'Okame'5-8/8-420-25'
Yoshino cherryPrunus x yedoensis6-8/8-620'-40'
Flameleaf sumacRhus copallina4-9/9-320'-30'
Japanese stewartiaStewartia pseudocamellia5-8/8-520'-40'
Japanese snowbellStyrax japonicus (esp. 'Pink Chimes')6-8/8-620'-30'
Fragrant snowbellStyrax obassia6-8/8-620'-30'
Japanese tree lilacSyringa reticulata4-7/7-120'-30'
Tall trees that can be used near (but not under) utility lines due to their more upright or narrow crowns.
Norway mapleAcer platanoides 'Columnare', 'Crimson Sentry', 'Easy Street', 'Olmstead'3-7, 7-125'-45'
Red mapleAcer rubrum 'Armstrong', 'Bowhall'3-9/9-140'-50'
Sugar mapleAcer saccharum 'Apollo', 'Newton Sentry4-8/8-330'-50'
European hornbeamCarpinus betulus 'Columnaris', 'Fastigiata'4-8/8-130'-50'
GinkgoGinkgo biloba 'Fairmount','Fastigiata', 'Princeton Sentry'5-9, 9-240'-60'
Southern magnolia*Magnolia grandiflora 'Alta', 'Hasse'7-9,9-340'-50'
Callery pearPyrus calleryana 'Capital', 'Cleveland Select', 'Whitehouse'5-8/8-230'-40'
English oakQuercus robur 'Fastigiata','Skyrocket'4-8/8-440'-50'
*Plants that, due to lack of cold hardiness, are not suitable for planting in all parts of Virginia (check your hardiness zone).


Editorial contributions provided by Allegheny Power, American Electric Power and Dominion Virginia Power.


Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.


Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.


May 1, 2009