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.