More than 130 Menlo Park and Atherton property owners should soon receive letters from Pacific Gas and Electric saying up to 1,400 trees near PG&E gas transmission pipes on their properties may need to be removed as safety hazards.
The program has drawn criticism from local officials, including Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who is featured in a PG&E mailer endorsing the program, and from members of the Atherton City Council. The Menlo Park City Council is due to be briefed on the program on Aug. 25.
A PG&E spokesman said letters were sent Thursday, July 23, to 48 Atherton property owners who have gas transmission pipeline easements through their property, with 600 trees that could need to be cut. Letters to 83 Menlo Park property owners with 800 such trees will be next, he said.
Letters were also sent earlier in the week to neighbors of the Atherton properties, warning them of upcoming work in their neighborhoods, according to Jeff Smith of PG&E's corporate relations department.
In similar programs elsewhere, between 30 to 40 percent of the trees examined must be removed, PG&E government relations representative William Chiang told the Atherton City Council in a recent presentation. If 40 percent of local trees must go, Atherton property owners would lose 240 trees and Menlo Park property owners 320 trees.
Location of pipelines
PG&E's website shows the properties affected in Atherton are along Walsh Road and Ringwood Avenue. In Menlo Park the gas lines run along parts of Middlefield Road, Sand Hill Road, through the Sand Hill Circle area, Sevier Avenue, Chester Street, Grayson Court, Van Buren Road and Bay Road. Mr. Smith said trees will also be cut in East Palo Alto soon, and in Palo Alto, Woodside and Portola Valley next year.
In early April, PG&E was ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission to put $850 million of shareholder funds into "gas transmission pipeline safety infrastructure improvements," as part of $1.6 billion in penalties "for the unsafe operation of its gas transmission system." In 2010, an explosion at a gas-transmission line in San Bruno killed eight people. It was the highest penalty the PUC has even imposed.
According to a brochure prepared by PG&E about what it is calling a "community pipeline safety initiative," trees and shrubs and plants with woody stems, such as manzanita and juniper, should be at least 10 feet away from a gas pipeline, while "larger trees" need to be at least 14 feet away. That means property owners could be asked to remove trees from a 28-foot-wide swath of their property.
PG&E says it will replace any removed trees with new trees elsewhere on a property.
Structures, including buildings, solid fences, pools, hot tubs, patios, decks and gazebos, also must be removed if they are above the pipeline, the brochure says.
After the notification letter
Property owners who have the PG&E pipeline running through their property will receive a followup phone call from PG&E to set up an inspection appointment, Mr. Smith said.
Later a PG&E representative will meet with the homeowners to discuss a plan for dealing with any trees or other impediments in the PG&E right-of-way. No action will be taken until after there is a written and signed action plan with each homeowner, he said.
PG&E plans to meet with the Menlo Park City Council to explain the program on Aug. 25, Mr. Smith said. If the meeting PG&E officials had with the Atherton council on July 15 is any indication, things may not go smoothly.
Atherton council reaction
"I really don't feel you're doing great work," Councilman Cary Wiest said. "What have you done in the 50-plus years you've had the easements on these properties? I'll guess nothing."
Since trees may have been growing in the easements for 50 or more years, many of them could be heritage trees, he and other council members said. In Atherton most trees that are 48 inches or more in circumference are heritage trees.
City Attorney Bill Connors pointed out that by removing 200 heritage trees, PG&E could be taking out more such trees all at once than all Atherton residents have done in 40 years.
Council member Elizabeth Lewis asked if there wasn't an alternative to the wholesale tree removal.
"Is there any potential of instead of destroying a tree or destroying a neighborhood by cutting down all the trees of relocating the pipes?" she asked.
It would take about three years to do the necessary studies and move pipelines, Ms. Lewis was told, and the company wants to do the work within the next few months.
Ms. Lewis urged PG&E to look more into relocating the pipes. "We haven't had any notification of these pipelines being in danger," she said. "I see the need for safety I don't see the need for the rush to take down 500 trees."
"We are working right now to keep the pipes safe, and having access for first responders is the number one issue," said Darin Cline, a PG&E government relations representative.
But one of those first responders who was present at the meeting seemed skeptical.
Chief Schapelhouman on plan
Menlo Park Fire Protection Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who is featured in a recent PG&E mailing to San Mateo County residents, attended the presentation. The mailing explaining the "new safety initiative" quotes the chief as saying that removing "obstructions to gas pipelines will help speed response times and save lives."
After the meeting, however, Chief Schapelhouman, who was one of the first responders on the scene after the San Bruno explosion, had some pointed comments about PG&E's plans in Atherton.
"I thought the council members asked some very important questions and had some excellent points," he said. Chief Schapelhouman said he understands "why there is a huge concern about what 'access' really means and how we actually and logically define and discuss risk," he said.
"No one wants to see 500 trees cut down, that isn't acceptable," he said.
Town wants promises in writing
PG&E has promised to abide by the town's tree-removal permit process, although the representatives said they won't actually get permits because as a public utility they don't have to. Mr. Chiang agreed, however, to go to the Planning Commission to get permission to take out each heritage tree, which is the town's requirement.
That promise prompted City Attorney Connors to ask what PG&E would do if the Planning Commission said a tree must stay. "We haven't come across that yet," said Mr. Cline.
The council asked PG&E to put the promises about the project into writing. The promises included not doing any work without written permission of homeowners, replacing trees that are removed and restoring landscaping, notifying the town of who will be doing all the work and when, and hiring an additional arborist to oversee the work if the town's arborist can't be there.
PG&E also promised to individually examine each tree near the pipeline to see if it can be allowed to stay.
"We're trying to learn from past experiences," said PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith. "We have not always partnered with communities to the degree that we should."
Mr. Smith said PG&E wants to "work with (Atherton) to come up with a solution that's satisfactory to them."