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News: 07/01/2012

Congressman weighs in on PG&E tree cutting

Congressman weighs in on PG&E tree cutting

By Jay Gamel

The fight between a few homeowners in Oakmont and utility giant PG&E has escalated to the point that Congressman Mike Thompson (D-1st District) has called on PG&E to work out a plan that provides clearly understood standards for managing vegetation under its high-voltage power lines statewide.

At his Napa office on Monday, June 25, Thompson met with members of Save our Sonoma Trees (SOS-Trees), a representative from State Assemblyman Michael Allen’s (D-7th District) office, and others concerned about PG&E’s tree removal program.

“The commitment I was asking for is that everybody come together and figure out how to work together to minimize safety issues for the power lines and maximize keeping the trees,” Thompson said in a Wednesday afternoon phone call from Washington, D.C.

Thompson was clear that he intends for PG&E to come up with a reasonable tree management policy statewide, and not continue to negotiate with each property owner without clear standards.

“I hope PG&E heard it loud and clear because it was repeated that this was not just about the people at the table or homeowners in Oakmont, but about their plan in the State of California,” Thompson said.

Assemblyman Allen has already sponsored legislation aimed at getting PG&E to provide clear standards.

PG&E’s stated policy for “vegetation management” is to “establish a low growing plant community” by “clearing rights-of-way of tall growing and incompatible plant species,” according to the company’s web pages on vegetation management.

This policy is directly at odds with homeowners, environmental groups and public officials who want to retain as many trees as possible while maintaining power line integrity and safety.

At the meeting in Thompson’s office, PG&E agreed to meet with members of Save our Sonoma Trees (SOS-Trees), a citizen action group, in the next few weeks to begin the process. The group has been meeting weekly for nearly a year to work out strategies to halt PG&E’s plans to remove as many trees as it can underneath its 230kv high voltage lines throughout California.

In Sonoma County, PG&E’s 39-mile power transmission line runs from the Geysers to Lakeville Road through private property, state and county parks, including Annadel, Hood Mountain and Shiloh, near Healdsburg, and at least one large wilderness preserve.

PG&E’s refusal to disclose any set standards for deciding which trees should be removed and which should be trimmed has frustrated everyone trying to protect their trees.

Emery Dann, a certified arborist and member of SOS-Trees, who met this month with PG&E representatives and north county supervisor Mike McGuire at Shiloh Park, rejected PG&E’s assertions that wholesale tree removal was necessary to protect line safety.

“They have been uncooperative about putting in writing exactly what their standards are and when a tree has to be removed or when it can be trimmed,” Dann said. “What SOS-Trees wants is for every tree to be individually considered for trimming. PG&E is not willing to consider differences within species that they call incompatible. The only compatible vegetation PG&E wants would be grass, poison oak, blackberries, toyons and Manzanita.”

Dann also noted that grasslands are a far greater fire danger than trees that are well under the danger zone.

“The problem we’ve had all along is that we’ve wanted them to come out with a standardization, minimum air gap between trees and power lines, but what we’re getting is whatever can be negotiated with each individual is what they are doing,” said Herman Hess, a member of Oakmont’s Property and Development Committee which is tracking this issue.

Skip van Loben Sels, an Oakmont resident who has been dealing with the issue on behalf of his homeowners group at Starry Knoll (next to the PG&E substation above the golf course), said that the company has backed off its earlier announced intention to start major tree removal before June 15.

“They have been removing some trees, but mostly trimming with agreement from homeowners,” van Loben Sels said. “They seem to have backed off, for now.”


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