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PG&E to cut thousands of trees in county


PG&E Co. plans to cut down thousands of trees under its high-voltage power lines across Sonoma County to help protect the local power grid from blackouts.

But worried residents are pushing back, saying the new policy is overkill that threatens to brand the county with a 39-mile-long scar from The Geysers to Petaluma.

"When you take away this many trees, it's just going to leave a barren swath that I think is unattractive," said John Potter, who lives in Oakmont with his wife, Anne.

The couple's house sits about 50 feet from the path of the transmission wires, close enough to hear the occasional hum of the 230 kilovolts flowing by their deck.

But visually, the Potters are buffered from the lines by more than 40 oaks and madrones behind their property.

But nearly all of them have painted blue dots on their bark, marking them for removal.

For Yvonne Horn, a travel writer who lives nearby, it would be a stunning loss.

She doesn't mind losing her oleanders, which also are slated for the ax even though they pose no obvious threat. But it seems a terrible waste to chop down old oaks in the hills above, she said.

"They are just pieces of art and they don't come up readily," she said. "To cut them down, it would just really, really be too bad."

Until recently PG&E would trim and top such trees. But a 2003 blackout blamed on trees that cut power to 50 million people in the Northeast put new focus on hazards that vegetation can pose to the nation's power supply.

In 2007, under a federal mandate, North American Electric Reliability Corp. came up with more robust standards for utilities.

The changes do not mandate clear-cutting, but they do enforce strict punishments that encourage utilities to take tougher action, according to PG&E.

"If we haven a vegetation-caused outage on a transmission line, the penalty could be as high as $1 million per day," PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers said.

In 2008, with the new standards in mind, PG&E began removing trees, bushes and other vegetation from beneath its 6,800 miles of transmission lines rather than pruning or trimming.

Workers have addressed nearly 90 percent of the lines across the state. Ehlers said PG&E hopes to finish its work in Sonoma County this spring before fire season.

But opponents are trying to slow the process, posting signs on their property asking crews to refrain from cutting trees without permission, organizing a group called Save Our Sonoma Trees and soliciting political support.

Last week, Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, who owns property in Oakmont, has introduced a "place holder" bill on the issue that he later plans to flesh out with details.

For now, Allen in AB2556 declares an intent to modify requirements for utilities in trimming of trees "to adequately protect public safety while implementing good forestry practices, protecting heritage trees and respecting community values."

Similar controversies have flared in Pacifica, Foster City, San Jose, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, Allen said.

Tom Birdsall, who owns more than 40 acres off Sonoma Mountain Road, said he can't understand PG&E's actions, which he said threaten to take an environmental and aesthetic toll.

On his property, PG&E's blue dots mark ancient oaks that have reached maturity and pose no threat to lines well above them and on a 3-foot tall fir that is decades away from causing any problem.

"We want to talk with PG&E and we'd like to understand why they can't continue with the past policy that has been effective at a relatively low cost," he said.

Ehlers stressed that as PG&E crews leave markers on trees, the public can contact project managers to discuss their cases.

Sheri Emerson, stewardship program manager with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, said she was satisfied PG&E wouldn't remove any trees without discussing the matter first.

But others worry they're facing a done deal.

"As far as I know, where they marked the blue dots are trees that are going to come down whether we squawk about it or not," Potter said.

You can reach Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.