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Anger over PG&E tree-removal plan

Joan McKnight, who owns a home on Pine Flat Road, asks about PG&E's right to cut down trees during a public meeting to discuss vegetation management for 39 miles of high-voltage transmission lines at the Bennett Valley Fire Station in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, March 29, 2012.

Beth Schlanker / Press Democrat
Published: Friday, March 30, 2012 at 8:46 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 at 8:46 a.m.

PG&E's plans to remove trees along a 39-mile corridor through Sonoma County were met with angry rebuke at a community meeting Thursday night.

PG&E officials fielded sometimes-antagonistic questions for nearly two hours as property owners demanded an explanation for changes to the company's revised vegetation management policy.

The new plan is a response to more strict federal mandates and penalties related to power blackouts, said Bob Bell, supervising program manager for PG&E.

"We have to follow the rules," he said.

"We are doing this because we do not think the risk is acceptable here," he said. "We do not want to set this community on fire."

But property owners said PG&E has not been clear about which of the tens of thousands of trees across the county marked with the now-ominous "blue dots" are actually slated for removal.

"I'm more confused about what PG&E might do than when I came in," said John Dinwiddie.

Bell acknowledged the "horrible lack of trust" he said has pervaded the project. No trees have been removed, but PG&E officials said about 10 percent of those under the stretch need to be pruned or removed by the start of the fire season in mid-May.

"We are not going to clear-cut," Bell said, referring to language in letters sent to property owners. "That was a mistake. That's a problem, and I'm sorry."

The nearly 40-mile corridor in question lies underneath high-voltage power lines that stretch from The Geysers over Oakmont and Bennett Valley to Petaluma.

Trees that are tall enough to knock down a tower or fall into sagging and swaying power lines need to be dealt with, he said.

"We are talking about high-voltage electricity," he said.

But that doesn't mean all trees marked with the blue dots will be removed immediately, Bell insisted.

"The blue dots were merely an inventory of growth under the high-voltage transmission lines. You can't manage what you don't measure."

But some at Thursday evening's meeting at the Bennett Valley Fire Department on Bennett Valley Road southeast of Santa Rosa said it was still unclear what criteria the company would use to determine which trees to remove, which to prune and which to leave alone.

Tom Hauck, who owns 11 acres on Sonoma Mountain Road, said Thursday's meeting did not answer his question. Is PG&E going to come onto his property and cut trees without his permission?

"Their answer is, 'We cannot answer that,' " he said. "What we want is a standard across the entire line or across all of Sonoma (County). We don't want people picked off one at a time."

Joan McKnight, whose family owns 750 acres at the top of Pine Flat Road, said the company's actions in the coming weeks will indicate whether or not they heard the concerns of landowners.

"It is clear to me that if they deem they need to do this and they don't have my permission, they are going to do it anyway," she said. "It kind of makes me sick to my stomach."

Still, she remains optimistic, but insists that she is not naive.

"It's certainly easier for them to go and clear-cut. Then they don't have to come back again," she said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@

pressdemocrat.com.

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