PG&E tree-cutting in gas easements upsets Riverbank residents

A crew removes trees along Santa Fe Street near Central Avenue in Riverbank on Wednesday afternoon.
A crew removes trees along Santa Fe Street near Central Avenue in Riverbank on Wednesday afternoon.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says its Community Pipeline Safety Initiative is making its gas transmission lines in Riverbank and other communities safer.

Some residents in the “City of Action” complain, however, that they are losing shade trees, landscaping features for their homes and pretty tree-lined streets.

“People are upset,” Jerry Anderson said. A contractor for PG&E cut down five olive trees in front of Anderson’s ranchette at Santa Fe Street and Central Avenue in east Riverbank.

The giant utility company first agreed to pay Anderson $750 for the olive trees, but may be reneging because the trees were in a city right-of-way, Anderson said. Now, he just has stumps in front of his home and his family will no longer be able to can the olives they had picked from the trees.

“We started getting excuses,” Anderson said. He figures his home value has dropped $10,000 because the trees added appeal to the real estate. The loss of the trees also exposes the home to direct sunlight, which could increase his utility bills.

Anderson said one of Riverbank’s landmark oak trees at Santa Fe and Central was threatened by PG&E’s project, but a neighbor protested and the tree has been left alone.

Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman in Fresno, said the Riverbank project is being wrapped up this week. He said 10 trees were removed on Santa Fe Street, generally between Claus and Snediger roads.

Smith said PG&E is improving the safety of its natural gas pipelines by removing trees, sheds or any other items that are too close to the lines. The initiative is part of a $3 billion effort to enhance the safety of its pipelines in California after the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion five years ago.

Smith said removing items from the pipeline easements ensures that emergency responders have immediate access when needed. Online information about the extensive project also says trees, other vegetation and structures too close to pipelines can prevent crews from performing safety work or maintenance. Also, tree roots can damage the protective coating of underground pipelines, the company says.

PG&E has worked with property owners and local agencies throughout the state to relocate trees, shrubs, structures and even a swimming pool that were within feet of transmission lines, Smith said.

“We work with individual residents or communities to ensure that, if trees need to be relocated or replanted, they are satisfied with the outcome,” Smith said.

Riverbank officials had several discussions with PG&E before the tree-cutting began in the utility easements that run through the city, Public Works Superintendent Michael Riddell said.

Riddell said PG&E offered three choices to property owners and the city: It offered to pay cash for the trees removed, replace an eliminated tree with an acceptable species, or provide trees to be replanted someplace else at a two-for-one rate.

Riddell said the city chose the two-for-one deal for about 25 trees removed from city easements. The Parks and Recreation Department will take delivery of 50 trees and decide where to plant them, Riddell said.

He said the city took part in discussions over the oak tree at the southeast corner of Santa Fe and Central. According to Anderson, his neighbor put out a sign and asked people to put their signatures on a petition to save the majestic oak.

Riverbank has an ordinance recognizing the aesthetic qualities of oak trees. “PG&E had conversations with two residents and elected to leave the tree and consider it an acceptable risk at this time,” Riddell said.

He said PG&E has a right to maintain its utility easements and remove anything that could be a threat to the transmission pipeline. The company could later change its mind about the Santa Fe oak.

On Wednesday, the contractor for PG&E cut the olive trees incorporated in the wall fronting the home at Santa Fe and Central, where the big oak tree stands. A flag man said another oak near the buried transmission line would be left alone.

Greg Smith, who lives in the area, said he doesn’t accept the reasoning for cutting the trees down to stumps. “It is terrible,” he said. “It used to be nice and pretty on that corner. It just blows my mind.”

PG&E has the same work planned in San Joaquin County, including in Ripon, the spokesman said.

The investor-owned utility has been working on the initiative in unincorporated areas of Stanislaus County in the past year, Public Works Director Matt Machado said. The county issued an encroachment permit with a condition that PG&E mitigate the removal of trees from county rights-of-way next to gas pipelines.

Machado didn’t have an immediate count on the trees removed or how many arbors the county will receive as compensation. PG&E enters separate agreements with landowners where its gas pipelines cross private parcels, he said.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321