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.)
8 thoughts on “High tension wires in Pickwick Commons: maximizing utility out of utility line ROWs.”
These are a great opportunity to make into recreational spaces, especially for things like mountain biking. Have you ever been to Wakefield Park in Annandale? https://goo.gl/maps/wLmPDjbo5M3F7V9j6 There is now a lot of precedent that allows power companies to allow this use without fear of liability. It’s a win-win because maintenance of the space is shared and the public gets some value.
Unfortunately I haven’t been there, even though I know it’s close. It’s one of the examples on the long list that I cited. Isn’t it geared toward mountain bikes? Currently not an owner. That said, it would be nice for me to try one of these out; it looks fairly arduous!
I can’t help but think that part of the apprehension for building trails on dedicated utility paths in the past was the suspicion that few people would be willing to use them, out of fear from all that high voltage overhead. The threat of course is infinitesimal, but that low-grade buzz can be disconcerting. It’s ironic, since most roads and power lines run on parallel ROW paths, and of course the sidewalks are right there (often with a utility pole smack in the middle!) and nobody worries about overhead wires in that context. Of course, the sound of passing traffic may drown out the electric buzz. Our of sight (or out of hearing range), out of mind.
I really think the impediment is the power companies who were worried about liability. States must enact legislation that minimizes the liability. Pretty sure VA has it and MD now, however I can’t find the details. I am involved with the City of Annapolis making a multiuse trail along the old WB&A line (the main electrical ROW now used by BGE) and remember hearing the MD laws changes in the recent past such that they are willing to allow public access because of relaxed liability. Also, they get city maintenance of the growth out of the deal so it’s basically a win-win. This is very much the case on the WO&D trail in VA that I rode the entire length on a recent bikepacking trip (https://teampline.org/2022/05/20/bikepacking-the-petite-trans-va-route/). Same is true of the Schuylkill River Trail north of Philadelphia.
I asked around to some of my contacts and FWIW it’s not necessarily enabling legislation that allows this to happen (although my understanding is it is in TX) rather often a function of a Public Services Commission telling a power company “you must allow this”. This is the case for the aptly named “Pepco Trail” in Montgomery County (https://www.trailforks.com/trails/pepco-trail/) which was created as a condition to show the merger of Pepco/Excelon was in the “public interest”.
And one more comment on this from a friend: many power companies to not actually own the land under their wires, but have an easement so it’s not really up to them it would be up to the land owner and many land owners are just not interested in that complication. In the aforementioned case of Pepco, they actually own the land under their lines so it was just a matter of the right incentive to get them to do it. Fortunately Maryland has strong liability protection for individuals, companies, etc that allow recreational use of their lands if they are not paid for that use. So while anyone can sue anyone for anything, landowners who let others use their land for trails are protected.
Thanks for all your responses. I think this third one effectively captures why this is less common: more often than not, it’s not a dedicated ROW owned by a utility company (most would never ever want to own that much land), but it’s privately owned land as is the case in this example in New Albany. And it then becomes a hassle persuading private landowners to relinquish that privacy to bicyclists and runners. It’s far easier for them to tolerate the occasional intrusion from a utility company.
And yes, I’d presume there’s a waiver of liability when injury takes place on an easement. Much the same as we cannot sue a landowner for a trip-and-fall on the sidewalk running through their front yard. However, a utility company may still be liable if an injury related to the actual overhead wires should befall a person using the space lawfully for recreation. All very good points.
The Skokie Valley Bike Path runs through Highland Park, Lake Forest, and Lake Bluff Illinois under massive transmission towers. https://goo.gl/maps/cGqkqe52qoZSeMzTA It’s on the roadbed of the former Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad’s Skokie Valley route. An electric interurban railway, part of Samuel Insull’s utility empire, he used the right-of-way for electric transmission lines as well. In fact, every second catenary support shared a leg of one of the transmission towers https://lflbhistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/BC51C990-289C-44F3-8581-191141982373 Those have since been replaced with the tubular pole transmission towers. At Rockland Road the North Shore Path runs on the Mundelein branch but some of the lower voltage catenary towers remain to support a few distribution wires. https://goo.gl/maps/vwzSjCX8qMn4m9B3A You can see where the overhead support used to attach.
It is kind of surprising we don’t see more of this. Even on non-electrified railroads they usually leased out some of their right-of-way for electric transmission, which tended to have more staying power (hah) than the parent railroad. There’s a bit of bike path south of Lebanon, Ohio that uses a power company easement/right-of-way. https://goo.gl/maps/VQq7TxjRAdQZR3Rt9 An advantage to this setup is that they don’t get too overgrown. A disadvantage is that they’re never shady, and on ones that were formerly railroads, they can get quite monotonous.
Interesting…That Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad segment is unusually narrow for a contemporary transmission line utility ROW, probably because it cleverly doubled with the interurban catenary. And it really isn’t all that contemporary. I can’t help but think that it was a far easier sell as a rail-to-trail conversion (and was probably couched in those terms, when making the case), rather than a doubling of utility and pedestrian easements.
You’re right about the monotony. This probably is a deterrent for a lot of recreational biking; these paths often just aren’t very scenic. But they are often effective shortcuts from an A to B, and if this A and B align enough with the greater public will, they can still get a fair amount of use.