Atherton's City Council is still unhappy about Pacific Gas & Electric's plans to remove trees growing over the company's rights-of-way for gas transmission pipelines. But the council has agreed to let the process begin with sixteen trees on six properties.
In July PG&E representatives explained what they are calling a "pipeline safety and tree vegetation management" program to examine 600 trees in the town for possible removal. Council members asked PG&E to return with more information before removing any trees.
PG&E government relations representatives William Chiang and Darin Cline told council members Sept. 16 that so far they want to remove only 16 of the 242 trees they've looked at, far fewer than the 30 to 40 percent of trees that they earlier said have been taken out in other communities under the program. Member of the council still weren't placated.
"I don't want to just accept this and have them start the process to remove trees," Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis said. Instead, she said, the town should formally ask PG&E to move its pipelines away from the trees.
In the end, however, the council agreed to let PG&E try its process with the 16 trees already identified as dangerous. "We can see how it goes with these six properties ... and we can assess that," said Mayor Rick DeGolia.
Mr. Chiang told the council that PG&E is looking at 606 trees along Atherton streets on 44 private properties. He said that so far, the utility has spoken to 27 property owners, and signed six tree removal contracts. The found 105 trees "that can stay exactly where they are" and others "are manageable" but may need to be removed later, he said.
He and Mr. Cline also promised that even though the utility is exempted by state law from needing local permits, PG&E will fill out, but not sign, the town's tree removal permit forms and will go before the Planning Commission for any trees covered by Atherton's heritage tree ordinance.
"I just don't want to create any misunderstandings with your Planning Commission that they can say, 'No, you can't take that tree,'" Mr. Chiang said.
"They can say no," Mr. DeGolia said. "We want our Planning Commission to look at this with open eyes."
Mr. Chiang said that while the town can't tell PG&E not to remove a tree, if private property owners refuse permission, the utility will not cut the trees. Later, however, Mr. Cline said that if homeowners did not change their minds it "would lead us to possibly going to court."
The program started after PG&E was ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission in April 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.