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County hopes to strike balance with PG&E over tree cutting

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 7:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 7:54 a.m.

Sonoma County supervisors said Tuesday they hope to strike a "balanced approach" between power line safety and environmental protection under PG&E's major transmission line through the county.

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PG&E is developing a tree-cutting plan for trees near power lines in the county.

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"It's a no-brainer," board Chairman David Rabbitt said after listening to residents castigate the utility for clear-cutting under power lines, and others compliment it for decades of community service.

"Sometimes there's a little you have to give," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said, in order to "keep the lights on."

Supervisor Susan Gorin backed the environmental concerns. "We love our trees, let's just be really frank about this," she said.

And Supervisor Shirlee Zane said PG&E has a "grand opportunity" to respond to an "erosion of trust" by some of its customers.

At stake is the utility's new program -- called a Transmission Vegetation Management Plan -- for trimming and removing trees beneath the 230-kilovolt power line that stretches 39 miles from The Geysers to Petaluma.

PG&E has completed 65 percent to 75 percent of the tree management program in Sonoma County and will extend the rest of the work into 2014 in order to work with officials and residents, PG&E spokeswoman Brittany McKannay said.

Residents became alarmed last year after PG&E marked thousands of trees on private property with blue dots, targeting them for removal.

Bill Keene, general manager of the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, said the public lands "could be dramatically altered and impacted" by the utility's tree-clearing program.

More than $14 million has been spent to acquire and develop the four properties: Coopers Grove and Sonoma Mountain Woodlands east of Rohnert Park, Saddle Mountain Open Space Preserve on the east edge of Santa Rosa and Shiloh Regional Park near Windsor.

Keene said PG&E's new plan was "a change in management practice, a change from what they've done in the past."

Bob Bell, program manager for PG&E's vegetation management department, told supervisors the utility has a "best-in-class program" which was improved in response to public complaints.

Bell said PG&E removes about 90 percent of trees and trims the rest beneath 230-kilovolt lines, the highest-capacity lines on the North Coast. Under lower-voltage neighborhood power lines, the tree removal rate is about 10 percent.

New federal rules established fines of up to $1 million a day in situations where trees cause a power failure or fire on high-voltage lines, Bell said, noting that ratepayers absorb that cost.

Federal Energy Regulation Commission rules also set a "zero tolerance" for any tree that comes too close to high-capacity lines. "There are no exceptions," spokeswoman Brittany McKannay said after the hearing.

Bell said PG&E has been "working collaboratively" with the county on the tree-cutting standards. "There is a natural give and take that occurs," he said.

James Casciani, a Sonoma Mountain landowner, said he was shocked by the tree removal on mountain slopes. PG&E's mindset runs "counter to what Sonoma County expects," he said.

Emery Dann of the citizens' group SOS Trees said clear-cutting at Sonoma Mountain Woodlands amounted to "complete devastation."

The tree-cutting crews left behind brush that constitutes "a tremendous fire hazard," he said.

Chris Hanlin, a former Sonoma Mountain Road resident, said PG&E was attempting to protect its bottom line by eliminating the cost of repeated tree trimming.

Several speakers, including Brian Ling of the Sonoma County Alliance and Donna Zapata of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, complimented PG&E for decades of community involvement.

"I know they're going to be good stewards of the land," Ling said.

Without taking a vote, supervisors gave county officials 90 days to develop a tree removal plan in collaboration with PG&E.

Keene said that process would involve visits to the four public-owned sites to discuss with PG&E "what latitude they have" for trimming trees rather than felling them.

"There's probably nothing that forces them (PG&E) to agree (to a county plan)," County Counsel Bruce Goldstein told the supervisors.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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