Representatives of PG&E told the Menlo Park City Council on Aug. 25 that the company has begun examining 1,300 trees in the city that are growing in its gas transmission line easements and might have to be removed.
There are 500 trees in public right-of-ways and 800 others on private property, according to PG&E.
In July, PG&E made a similar presentation in Atherton, where it is looking at 600 trees on 48 properties. Atherton officials asked the utility to return to the Sept. 16 council meeting with its promises about how it will conduct the program in writing.
Darin Cline, a PG&E government relations representative, told the Menlo Park City Council that the company has already begun looking at the trees in the right-of-way and has found "56 that are unacceptable ... and we would like to address those right away. The rest are manageable," he said.
PG&E has said that it will keep an eye on trees that don't need to be immediately removed, but they may have to be removed in the future.
Mr. Cline said that while only a little more than 10 percent of the trees in the Menlo Park right-of-ways needed immediate removal, the percentage will probably be higher for the other 800 trees that remain to be examined -- many of them in backyards. "It ends up being 20 to 30 percent in most cases," he said.
In Atherton, PG&E officials had said 30 to 40 percent of trees examined in other communities have had to be removed initially.
PG&E's website shows 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.
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, 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. Officials at the Menlo Park meeting said replacements are usually 15-gallon trees, and that if homeowners offer to plant the trees themselves, PG&E will give them two for each tree removed.
Council member Kirsten Keith asked if PG&E could give homeowners more than two to one replacements for trees and was assured PG&E would come to whatever agreement homeowners asked for. Mr. Cline said PG&E will not do any work until it has a signed agreement with property owners.
The PG&E brochure says structures, including buildings, solid fences, pools, hot tubs, patios, decks and gazebos, also must be removed if they are above the pipeline, but PG&E says that is not a problem locally.
Council member Ray Mueller asked what will happen if property owners do not want to remove the trees, but did not receive a clear answer. "We have about a 90 percent success rate" after initial conversations with property owners, Mr. Cline said. "We hopefully can get them to come around."
Mr. Mueller persisted. "If they don't come around what's the procedure?" he asked.
"We have brought in first responders to come in and talk to some folks," Mr. Cline said. "We have found that we need to educate them."
In Menlo Park, the utility might have trouble finding first responders to talk to residents, however.
Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who is featured in a recent PG&E mailing to San Mateo County residents, said after the earlier presentation in Atherton that he understands officials who were questioning why the utility needs to take out the trees.
"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.
PG&E said that residents with questions should contact Sarah Wetter, a customer outreach specialist for the utility, at firstname.lastname@example.org.