PG&E hits the 'rewind button' on tree removals in Palo Alto | News | Palo Alto Online |


PG&E hits the 'rewind button' on tree removals in Palo Alto

Officials addressed tree removal, pipeline safety at community meeting

Admitting that their plan to remove hundreds of trees from their gas pipeline right-of-way got off on poor footing, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) representatives are starting negotiations anew, officials told residents at a community meeting on Wednesday evening.

PG&E plans to remove hundreds of trees in Palo Alto and surrounding communities through its Community Pipeline Safety Initiative, which is part of a statewide program along its gas transmission lines. The company claims that the tree removals are necessary for crews to safety access the pipelines for inspections and emergencies. PG&E wants to clear a 28-foot wide space around the lines. There has been a lot of resistance to the plan from cities up and down the Peninsula.

From the beginning, Palo Alto officials and residents have made it clear to PG&E that they were not going to play by the utility's rules.

The meeting got off to a rough start when company officials ignored a warning by city staff. The city said beforehand that PG&E should make a formal presentation before a seated audience with follow-up questions and answers. Instead, PG&E brought in 25 company experts, who stood at stations to answer questions from small groups of people at Mitchell Park Community Center's El Palo Alto Room.

The small-group dialogue approach ignited a negative response from residents, some of who felt the utility company was using a "divide-and-conquer" strategy.

"I want to hear the answers to others' questions," a resident said, followed by a similar sentiment from others in the room, who insisted on a revised format.

Public Works Director Michael Sartor, who gave the opening remarks, laid out a strict set of ground rules for PG&E.

"Palo Alto will not be agreeing to any tree removals until an assessment and evaluation of the agreement has been done," he said.

The city will not approve the tree removals until a framework agreement is in place, which would be sent to the City Council for approval, perhaps in early 2016, he said. The City Attorney's office is reviewing framework agreements PG&E signed with the cities of Walnut Creek and Concord, he added.

Catherine Martineau, executive director of nonprofit Canopy, said the meeting format "was disrespectful.

"I was at a preparatory meeting yesterday and we told PG&E that this wasn't going to work," she said. "... We have to make sure the tree removal is not unnecessary and we want PG&E to restore a level of trust."

That mistrust has come in part from what PG&E officials called a misunderstanding between the utility company the the City of Palo Alto.

PG&E began approaching residents to sign a contract allowing for the removal of trees and structures in early November. But city officials were incensed that PG&E was forging ahead while they were still in negotiations, and they sent a notice to residents through social media advising them not to sign any agreements with PG&E.

Don Hall, director of customer care for PG&E, apologized to the audience and took personal responsibility for the snafu. He said the company does not have plans to remove trees from residential properties abutting its easement in four to six weeks, as some staff members had told residents.

The existing agreements some homeowners have signed, he said, would be null and void if residents choose to enter into revised agreements after the city has an approved agreement.

Hall eventually acquiesced with residents' meeting format demands and presided over an open floor of questions and answers sandwiched between small-group discussions at the information stations.

As part of their agreement with PG&E, Urban Forester Walter Passmore and Martineau will assess trees that PG&E wants to remove, Sartor said.

Passmore said the city would do a diligent job of making sure the trees are not removed unnecessarily.

"The city employees work for the residents, so we are going to make sure we represent their interests," he said. Passmore noted that the Urban Forest Master Plan, which the city adopted in May, calls for a "no net loss" of tree canopy, which raises concerns about any large-scale tree removals.

"How can we meet those goals with PG&E? How are we to achieve those goals with the project's goals?" he said.

Dave Dockter, longtime city arborist, said that PG&E should be willing to do a formal environmental assessment under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). PG&E said it has not done a CEQA review for the entire tree-removal project statewide, but it would conduct reviews on select segments where it believes formal environmental review is required.

Dockter questioned the selectivity.

"What they are doing is redefining the use of land on commercial, public and private property. That act in itself is probably the hugest environmental change that this community has ever encountered," he said.

PG&E would remove all trees up to 14 feet in each direction from its pipeline -- a 28-foot wide swath -- adding back a succession of grasses and shrubs in the space.

With high-speed rail, there was an understanding that if all of the trees are taken out in an area, there is an obligation to inform the community of the impacts, Dockter said.

"To me, this project is the same in its entirety, in its landscape change. The right thing for PG&E to do is to prepare an environmental document that clearly discloses the impacts and discusses the alternatives," he said.

Although PG&E is doing their own environmental assessments for each part of the pipeline, which includes reviews by biologists and botanists, those reviews are not subject to public scrutiny and comment as they would be if the company did an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under CEQA. And under CEQA, the utility would have to include an assessment of alternatives for public comment.

PG&E Senior Land Consultant Dustin Joseph said that as part of the informal review, PG&E doesn't consider alternatives such as moving the pipeline to another easement. The informal environmental review "looks at the baseline environment. It doesn't look at other types of uses," he said.

Some residents said PG&E should consider moving the pipeline segments currently in their backyards to the streets, which would allow crews and first responders easy access and where trees would not be an issue.

Hall said moving a pipeline is not easy. Beyond expense, there are also safety considerations, he said. PG&E has already committed $500 million to the project statewide, he said.

Dane Lobb, PG&E public safety specialist, said the tree removal is a necessity for public safety.

"If there is a wind event and the tree comes over and its roots come up, then we have a real emergency" if a pipeline is ruptured, he said.

Dockter disagreed, calling the tree removal a "proactive clearance for pedestrian access."

"They are clear-cutting everything, changing land use for the privilege of inspecting from the air. The Urban Forest Master Plan -- all of the effort to grow a large canopy tree -- can be wiped out," he said.

Some residents saw the tree removal, in essence, as intruding on private property and a cost-saving measurement for the company.

Peter Ferrell asked if PG&E would be compensating residents for the devaluation of their properties when mature trees are removed. Property values would be downgraded by 7 to 10 percent; for a $2 million home, that's $200,000, he noted.

"How do you mitigate the damage to the neighborhood? If we as homeowners are collectively losing millions of dollars, why can't PG&E compensate the homeowner?" he said.

Cindy Campbell, an Ashton Avenue resident whose home has the pipeline cutting through her backyard, said that property values for such residents have declined since the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.

"We already provide a lot of community services," she said, noting that the pipeline serves energy to communities north and south. She questioned why the properties on her street should continue to lose value without just compensation from PG&E.

Sheryl Bilbrey, director of PG&E gas operations programs, said the company would not be compensating residents for the devaluation. She said that PG&E would work with residents on replanting and the company would try to add the largest replacement trees possible.

But some residents pointed out that replacement trees would be only 2 to 3 inches in diameter. At Stanford University, officials are replanting large oak trees, and PG&E should do the same, they said.

Hall said the company's first priority is public safety and easy access for inspections and for first responders in the event of an emergency.

"We're in a situation we wish we weren't in, but we remain committed to the right decision," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Longtime Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Would this new development have not been common sense, in the first place?

6 people like this
Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2015 at 12:30 pm

I don't believe that there are any PG&E transmission lines in anyone's backyard. Those are CPA mains, not PG&E. PG&E's transmission lines go to the gas receiving stations in Palo Alto, where Palo Alto's 195 plus or minus miles of main serve the houses and businesses. There are three or four gas receiving stations: one on Alma at Page Mill, one on the entrance road to the Baylands field (I can't remember, is it Geng Rd.?), one on Old Page Mill and possibly another.

5 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 3, 2015 at 1:29 pm

I would really appreciate PG & E supplying a map showing which trees and where they will be removed from. Asking the residents for feedback when a full disclosure of the trees to be removed has not been supplied by PG & E.

Having watched Wayne Martin's house burn down yesterday because an old extension cord was used does make me realize that safety comes first, so I do have sympathy for PG & E but in return I want full disclosure of the trees to be removed.

5 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Interactive map of PG&E gas line locations:

Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 3, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

So is the plan to cut down all the trees on the west side of Middlefield south of Matadero Creek, including in people's front yards? And both sides of MIddlefield south of Charleston? That's pretty brutal - kind of like what Palo Alto did to California Ave...

3 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Dec 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Kevin is a registered user.

If you look at the interactive map you will see that there is a PG&E transmission line that runs through people's back yards alongside Barron Creek, between Middlefield rd. and Cowper st.

5 people like this
Posted by Dave Cortesi
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2015 at 3:22 pm

Thank you "Crescent Park Dad" for the link to the gas pipeline map. From this it appears that only certain specific streets would be affected. If the pipeline is under one lane of a street like Middlefield, 14 feet from the center of the pipe would only reach past the sidewalk on one side of the street, and then not far. There are not a lot of blocks of that map where a 28-foot zone centered in the street would reach onto private land. One would be Cornell st. between California and Stanford aves, for example. The stretch where a pipe zig-zags from Alma to Middlefield along El Carmello, Waverley, Loma Verde, Cowper, and Ashton would be another. Most places where pipes run, it looks to me as if most of the impact would be on city-owned trees in the boulevard strips and center strips. That's absolutely a major concern for our urban forest, but it isn't like PGE coming into everyone's back yard with chainsaws.

9 people like this
Posted by Barron Park parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 3, 2015 at 3:24 pm

This is one of the times when the oft-derided "Palo Alto process" has succeeded in helping the community!

5 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 3, 2015 at 3:30 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

We just got a letter from Perennial Gouger & Extortion that indicates that testing of the line near our property ( ~100 feet away ) has passed testing. If they add galvanic corrosion inhibitors, that might make the pipeline last longer.

Most civil engineers design for 40 year lifespan on their designs..Maybe the SFBA must join the rest of the United States when displaying pipeline markers.

Web Link

A 25 foot wide easement sounds excessive. A FIVE FOOT WIDE easement is considered normal everywhere else. YMMV

5 people like this
Posted by Phil Farrell
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Thank you to our city officials for taking a firm line in defense of our urban forest.

I've had similarly bad experiences with PG&E's arrogant attitude on my vacation property in the Sierra. They have a 50 foot wide easement for a power line that crosses my property. A couple of years ago, I went up for the weekend to find all kinds of trees, including many outside their easement, marked for cutting and just a little notice on my door that they would be cutting and trimming trees within a couple of weeks to improve safety. NO mailed notice to me, the property owner! Thankfully, I was up there before they started cutting and interrupted their plans. I made their forester meet with me and justify every single tree cutting or trimming. I allowed them to cut a tree that was outside their easement, but leaning towards the power lines, but I stopped them from cutting others that they had marked. Instead, they just trimmed those.

PG&E acts like they can do whatever they want. As an individual, your options to oppose them are limited. Sure, you can sue, but that'll cost a fortune and they have an army of lawyers. So I'm glad to see that our city is intervening because it has power to force changes in their process.

5 people like this
Posted by RP
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 3, 2015 at 5:51 pm

When PG&E replaced the gas main along Charleston Rd in 2012, they buried it nice and deep. It's least 6 feet deep, and roughly 6 feet from the south curb.

Any arborist will tell you that 95% of tree roots are near the surface -- they seek out water, and need oxygen, and oxygenated soil. So the pipelines aren't in danger from roots. Even at 4 feet deep, only the tiniest tree roots will be found. Even if a tree falls, it seems extremely unlikely that it could affect a gas pipe -- much less than an earthquake would.

5 people like this
Posted by RP
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 3, 2015 at 5:58 pm

PG&E mentioned they want to ensure easy Fire Truck access to their pipelines. But if a gas pipe leaks and a fire erupts, the Firefighters _aren't_ going to try to spray it out -- that would just spread the flames. Instead, they ask PG&E to shut off the nearest shutoff valves, and wait for the fire to burn itself out. (Somebody at the meeting mentioned how long this takes -- maybe many minutes?)

One good suggestion was for PG&E to add more shutoff valves, including _automatic_ shutoff valves (ones that detect pressure loss. PG&E said they have added 120 (?) of these recently, but it was unclear if they are automatic. And presumably adding more of them would reduce the burn-off time if a fire erupts.

8 people like this
Posted by Nancy Peterson
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Thanks to Mayor Holman for acting so swiftly on the request of residents for the public meeting with PG&E and to City staff for being so fully engaged on our behalf. It's hard to imagine anyone who cares more about pipeline safety than homeowners who have the pipeline on their properties. At the same time we want to understand very clearly the need for tree and vegetation removal. And we worry about plans for clear cutting trees on public property as well. We'd had such frustrating interactions with PG&E representatives on our properties, which included provision of inaccurate and incomplete information. For example, we'd been told the City had approved PG&E's plan, and that the work had to be done by the end of the year. Some had been told that vegetation such as azaleas and dwarf trees need to be removed.
I'd like to work with a PG&E that we can trust. Trust has to be earned and can be easily lost. It can't be bought by the millions and millions of dollars PG&E spends every year on image that could used instead to move pipelines from residential properties to be located consistently under streets as the City and residents prefer.
As the process is now being re-set, this is PG&E's opportunity to behave honorably and prove trustworthy. Stay tuned.

3 people like this
Posted by Pipeline professional
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:31 am

Dane Loeb obviously only knows about one narrow part of his job. Don't let his ignorance drive the discussion. He doesn't represent the best of what even PG&E knows about what can be done.

1 person likes this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:29 pm

Cut'em down or let the PG&E sign over liability to the city and homeowner. Either way the precious trees get cut down. FTR no one in town seems to be complaining about the tree removal along Alma that was done "for the safety of our children" So why start now?

Like this comment
Posted by Michael Dawson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 3, 2017 at 10:48 pm

What happened to the PG&E tree cutting? Did it happen?

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