For the small handful of people who are this blog’s devotees, the image below may be a tiny bit familiar. I’ve covered this small subdivision in New Albany, Indiana once before. The name is Pickwick Commons, an age-restricted townhome development in which the retirement-age residents retain (at most) a small garden plot to cultivate, but common area maintenance fees help ensure the the tiny yard space in front of each gets mowed, weeded, and edged regularly. Here’s an image from smack in the middle of this idiosyncratic housing development constructed in the early 2000s:
Looks pretty typical. So why is it idiosyncratic? If you can’t tell from the photo above, try this one.
Yes, those are massive high tension wires that preside over Pickwick Commons, splitting the housing in two, as the map below indicates. The purple traces the boundaries of the development, and the blue shows the path of that massive electric line.
And here’s the point, courtesy of a recent Google Street View, where those power lines cross Slate Run Road, the nearest collector that allows ingress to Pickwick Commons. In the image captured through the link above, Pickwick Commons begins to stretch just in the lefthand edge of the frame, but those power lines reach expansively in both directions. Why shouldn’t they? New Albany, a suburb of Louisville with its own distinct (and revitalizing) downtown, is sufficiently urbanized that it requires a fully developed power grid, not the sort of vestigial single-cable lines one sees in the sparsely settled outskirts of Indianapolis, or much of rural America, for that matter. These power lines are the real deal, and they bisect Pickwick Commons, a scenario I blogged about several years ago.
Well this time, I revisit those power lines, not because the conditions have changed—they still preside over the subdivision exactly as one might expect—but because I came to a new revelation. Peering beyond the edge of Pickwick Commons and looking eastward toward the horizon, those power lines create a powerful visual impression.
As one might expect, they consume a tremendous amount of land—the equivalent of at least a four-lane street. The turf grass that grows underneath must get mowed regularly, most likely by the utility company itself, and it has to account for the lumpy topography of southern Indiana.
But it succeeds in creating a well-defined path to the east. Almost like a linear park. Which begs the question: why not treat it like a linear park? Sure, it’s not the ideal place to throw a football; it’s also way too hilly to support any other athletic field. But it’s long and sufficiently wide to support a pedestrian trail. This aerial below shows the path even more effectively, with Pickwick Lane of Pickwick commons in the northwest corner, while the heavily mowed wide path of the high tension wires stretches at least about a mile in a southeasterly direction, crossing the Silver Creek (the municipal edge of New Albany) into the neighboring city of Clarksville. Note the different shade of green in the path for the utility line, clearly indicating the trees felled in a formerly forested area to make room.
This green strip already receives the level of maintenance normally afforded to urban parks. Sure, it would require some investment to clear, grade, and pave an asphalt mixed-use path, and the pedestrian bridge across the Silver Creek would be a bit costly. But the biggest concern of all, the acquisition of land upon which to build the path, is already accounted for. Those mammoth high tension utility lines staked the claim a long time ago. Or did they? Pivot slightly from the previous photos’ views, and it’s clear that some private residences directly abut this power line path.
Notice the home in the distance on the right side of the photo, with what appears to be a garden (or logs and a fire pit). I’ve circled it in purple if it wasn’t obvious. For that matter, take that small chair in the foreground in the right edge. The homeowners seem willing to encroach right into the land that the local utility provider would have claimed for the high tension lines. It’s basically an extension of their back yards.
A zoomed in version of the map reveals the parcel lines southeast of Pickwick Commons, on either side of this utility path.
I’ve outlined the largest parcel in purple. The big patch of land ostensibly belongs to a single property owner, potentially the home in the far right edge of the above photo. This person has elected to own and (at least in part) care for the land, though a utility ordinance means that a representative from the electric company can come by at any time to serve or inspect the high tension utility lines, and it would not constitute trespassing. This unusual parcel also begs the question whether or not the property owner must retain some degree of upkeep; after all, if he or she allowed it to grow wild, with tall grasses and shrubs or even trees, it could impinge upon electrical service. As I indicated earlier, odds are good that the utility company maintains a good portion of the land below the high tension wires to its satisfaction. Without reviewing covenants within the land title, the exact nature of the relationship is difficult to guess, but the presence of an easement is certain. Landowners with power lines running through must forfeit a certain degree of exclusivity for utility access, in the same way that many streets enshrine some level of public access along the edge of private lands through pedestrian ordinances, manifested through sidewalks running parallel to the curb. Those sidewalks run through the private front yards of homeowners, but the easement allows the general public to walk along the sidewalk without constituting trespassing, as long as the pedestrian doesn’t venture into the yard.
Would it work? Is it reasonable to feature a ped/bike trail underneath a series of intimidating high tension wires? Though such paths are uncommon when one considers the tens thousands of miles of off-road recreational trails (and the hundreds of thousands of miles of utility lines), the examples of this hybrid approach are frequent enough to merit a photographic list. One that particularly struck my attention is in the bikers’ paradise of Seattle. Washington’s largest city has pioneered such infrastructural innovations as (to the best of my knowledge) the country’s first multi-block green street, but it also hosts the Chief Sealth Trail, a 15-year-old venture that parallels the ROW of a Seattle City Light transmission line for about 3.5 miles. It connects several neighborhoods and parallels a light rail line along Martin Luther King Way South, using soil and recycled concrete created in the development of that light rail line to help grade and refine this new multi-use recreational path. It’s among the highest profile trail developments running almost entirely underneath high-tension power lines. And while I’ll concede that Chief Sealth Trail passes through neighborhoods that are undoubtedly more densely populated than most of New Albany, a simple Street View image reveals an appearance that I think could parallel that of a line along the utility easement featured in these photos, if the vantage point from Pickwick Commons is any evidence. It could work here too!
These photos, revealing the stretch of land near Pickwick Commons already dedicated to high tension wires, depict an opportunity to fuse these two ordinances: utility and access. Essentially, the pre-existence of a utility easement enables and abets the creation of a separate access easement. It may be harder to legitimize the claim of a benefit of public access, and the landowner(s) could still object, since it technically operates as their big, weirdly shaped back yard. But internal sidewalks on parcel lines that separate back yards are quite common in residential subdivisions. And if the City of New Albany can assert a legitimate public purpose for a pedestrian trail and absolve the landowner of any remaining responsibility for maintenance, it’s possible to make a case to expand the provisions of the easement for a pedestrian path. I don’t imagine a “Pickwick Path” would venture all that far, probably not much more than two miles. But if it followed the path currently articulated by the utility right-of-way, it could head southeastward toward neighboring Clarksville, terminating in a similar residential area. Most importantly, it would prompt the creation of a pedestrian bridge across the Silver Creek, linking the New Albany and Clarksville in a walker/bicyclist friendly way at the near-perfect midpoint between Silver Creek’s only two other bridges: Blackiston Mill Road to the north and Spring Street to the South, both of which are much more car-oriented.
Perhaps most importantly in the grand scheme of things, a Pickwick Path would help brand those big, intimidating high-tension wires within an opportunistic context, transforming the visual blight of a scar cut through trees and maximizing the usability of its clean, linear sweep of land. Locals using the bike/ped trail would stop noticing the power lines, as the linkages between two municipalities would supersede them in importance. And small subdivisions like Pickwick Commons, who try to harness the space under the wires as rudimentary park lands, would get perceived as important stops along the new, human-scaled transportation corridor.
It’s lemonade out of lemons, and we clearly already have the “juice”. (Get it? Yeah, I know. Sorry.)