Planting Trees Over Underground Utilities

bjb817January 9, 2014

I'm looking to add another shade tree in my front yard to help block out mid-day sun. Unfortunately, there's underground electric/cable/phone lines in the only spot that would work. Researching online, there seems to be a lot of conflicting information about this.

FWIW, my neighbor's live oak appears to have been planted almost directly over the lines by the builder. Judging by the location in my yard and the neighbors, it looks like plenty of trees in the neighborhood are very near the lines as well.

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Remember with any buried utility at some point it will require being dug up and replaced. Are you willing to accept the loss if after 10 years the utility line goes bad and has to dig up to be replaced, and your beautiful tree dies because the main roots are cut?

What if they decide to replace the copper wiring that serves you house with fiber optic cable for your TV?

In my mind it is just not worth the loss of the tree with all of the work you put into it to get it to grow, and the possible loss to the value of your property if the tree dies.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 8:43AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

Researching online, there seems to be a lot of conflicting information

==>> you might be better off.. going old school.. and actually calling your own providers ...

presumably.. there is an easement for them .. you may or may not have rights as to planting in the space.. and its irrelevant what others did ...

it is also possible.. that said easement is addressed on your mortgage map ...

you might also contact your city.. and well as a local attorney [if its that important to you] ...

i see no way this can be accomplished online ...

all that said.. with todays boring abilities ... who knows if they would every have to trench out a replacement ....

and all this presumes you could dig a hole without electrifying yourself ...

you basically want to plant on someone elses property .... property someone else has rights to.. whether or not you mow the lawn .... and you will be hard presses to win an argument .. about some tree.. as noted above.. in the long run ... its no different than people who plant large trees under power lines.. and then complain .. when.. either the power keeps going out.. or when the utility massacres the tree ....

its hard to believe.. you can not move the tree in 10 feet or so... to avoid it all ... if its not an option .... then perhaps you are considering the wrong tree ...


    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 9:46AM
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arktrees(6b NW Arkansas)

With and easement, you still own it, and are responsible for it's upkeep, what you do not own is the rights to keep the utilities from digging it up at whatever time they see fit. I know this because I work where easements, utilities, and right of way are all standard fair. You can plant whatever you like, but you can also lose that planting at any time. Be it 1 year, 50 years, or never. There is however a complicating factor. Public opinion. If the utility has to come down the middle of everyone front yard, removing mature trees, and generally pissing everyone off, resulting in the utility and the municipality getting an ear full, then SOMETIMES their plans will change. Much will depend upon the attitude of the municipality. Locally there is a very tree friendly municipality abutting a not very tree friendly municipality. In one a utility would bring out the backhoes without a second thought. However in the other city, the same utility would bend over backward to save the trees. Just depends on where you are at, and the attitudes of the city and population of the city.

Lastly, short of being on an estate, or some rather similar larger property, tree roots will be crossing into easements, and right of ways. You just make the best choices you know, mitigate the risks as much as possible, and then don't worry about it until/unless there is a reason.


    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 10:44AM
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I have an eight foot underground utility easement along my back fence. There is a small post in the corner and about once a year the cable company comes into the yard to do something to it for my neighbors I guess, I don't have cable. There are three skinny cottonwoods trees in the easement right next to the post. They are about 35-40 feet tall and I would like to get rid of them, one of them is bending into my neighbors yard. Obviously they have been there for several years.

Anyway I certainly take the easement into account when I do new plantings.

I also have an easement in my front yard right near the side walk (the sidewalks are right next to the street here). ATT cellular has dug up a 3'x4' section twice in the last three years. I'm glad I didn't have anything nice planted there, they kind of left a mess when they were done too.

I guess my question is, when a utility takes out a tree in the easement, do they pay the full cost?

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 12:31PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

All good general advice above, but we don't have many of the facts needed to even start to make a decision for your particular case. How deep are the utilities? Are the wires in conduit or what? A picture might help. How long do you plan on living there? How much room do you have to work with? How do you know where the lines are located? It's just impossible to know what the right decision would be without the facts.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 12:37PM
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One thing I've determined is that there definitely isn't a cut and dried answer on this.

Myself and my neighbors on both sides of me just had our utilities marked as we were having some other landscaping done. That's how I know the neighbor's 12 year old live oak sits directly on top of the cable and electric.

It sounds like it's all a calculated risk. Chances are, the utility company with never mess with the wires and it's a non-issue. Luckily, at least in this case, they do love their trees here in Austin, TX and I have no doubt if something ever needed to be done that every effort would be made to work around it.

The only thing I'm not 100% sure of is the depth. I assume since other trees have been planted over them, they're down at least a couple of feet. Since the biggest tree I would plant is 15 gal, I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll be ok.

It seems to me that if you subtracted the utility easement and kept 10' away from any utility lines, our whole neighborhood would be devoid of trees given our smallish front yards. What to do?

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 11:30PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

The utility company should be able to provide you with approximate depth of their lines.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 11:57PM
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When considering buried utilities remember that all that services to your house are NOT in an official easement. These lines are the ones that come from the main lines to your house. In my current house, most that I am aware of are in an area of about 100' by 40' feet that runs from the house out to the street. This area has the incoming water, electric and cable lines. Each arcs through the area in their own random course. If you are on city sewers those lines must be consider also.

There is also old electronic dog fences to be consider, and any other items previous owner put in. In my previous 50 year old house, there were several unknown electricity cables that left the house for parts unknown. I assume they were for previously installed yard lights or fountains that had long since disappeared.

How deep are they? I am sure each company has a standard depth that they try to maintain. However, their actual depth is only known by the man who dug the trench, or ran the boring machine during the install.

In my yard this area is strictly off limits to anything but the shallow, low value plants and trees. If you do plant anything in this area that is of value, or deeper roots, make sure that it is over the wires, and not the pipes as wires will probable be replaced if there is a failure, where as pipes will have to be dug up.

This post was edited by knuttle on Fri, Jan 10, 14 at 9:13

    Bookmark   January 10, 2014 at 9:08AM
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jcalhoun(8b Mobile County AL)


Are the utility lines you ask about supply lines going to you house or main lines going along the street or right of way?

If they are your supply lines then you can have them located and carefully dig to spot them. There is an 18 inch leeway to either sides of the mark. If you hit it, you'll pay to fix it. The decision will be yours as to whether or not to plant a tree there.

If they are mains running along the steet or right of way then in most cities and counties in the US you will not be allowed to plant a tree or shrub or put anything else in the ground. This includes an irrigation system. In many cases, if somebody has to dig up something you planted on the ROW they can do it without your knowledge or permission.

A good example is the public works department of the city I used to work at was installing a drainage ditch in a residential area. The home owner had an irrigation system and flower beds and bushes loacted in the same place on the ROW. The crew had used the backhoe to dig a trench right through all of that and the home owner wasn't even home at the time. She was very mad but had to recourse due to the city ordnance stating that your private permanent property is not allowed on the right of way. By the time I got there to turn the water off the irrigatition meter was spinning like a helicopter. In the case of plants they just rip them out to.

I'd suggest keeping the trees within the property lines.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 5:01PM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

What about planting it far enough away, that you could use some sort of root barrier fabric to keep the roots from enroaching?

That way, if it is dug up, there won't be any roots there to disturb.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 3:24PM
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davidrt28 (zone 7)

As knuttle said, in any municipality I've heard of, any line running just to your house is yours and yours alone. You own it: if you break it, you fix it. The exception could be the telephone and cable service...but even in that case, if anything happens to the line before the network box, you're still going to pay to fix it, even if you don't technically own it. So unless it feeds another house, it's really your choice whether you want to risk planting on it. I have heard of a buried electric line needing repair after a lightning strike, oddly enough, but I think it's very uncommon. Otherwise the lifespan of the cable should be longer than yours.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 2:26PM
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