San Lorenzo Express News

PGE Agrees to Stop Radical Pruning of San Lorenzo Trees

JANUARY 29, 2002

A bitter controversy over PGE's pruning of street trees appears to be resolved. Last fall San Lorenzo Village residents complained loudly to the Village Homes Association and to anyone else who would hear about the manner in which the old sycamores in the Village were being "butchered" by crews hired by PGE.

PGE, like other utility companies that maintain power lines in California, is required by the Public Utilities Commission to prune trees away from high-voltage power lines (the uppermost wires on the utility poles in residential areas). For years, PGE has hired private tree-maintenance companies to do this job in the East Bay. This year, PGE hired Davey Tree Surgery Co. of Livermore to trim branches near power lines in San Lorenzo -- but with a difference.

This year PGE instructed the Davey crews to use a "deep V cut", cutting away virtually the entire middle portion of a tree directly under power lines. When residents saw this happening, they erupted in a fury. County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker negotiated a moratorium on further tree pruning until after a community meeting Dec. 19. At the meeting Peter Beesley, PGE's head of "vegetation management," defended the radical cutting as the "recommended" method today. He claimed that it replaces the "topping" method of pruning. This view was challenged by Alameda County's arborist, Jim Browne, who said that the "deep V cut" was an exaggeration of acceptable methods that PGE used to avoid more frequent pruning. Browne said the "deep V cut" constituted an assault on the tree. No agreement was reached at the meeting, and it appeared that PGE and residents were in a standoff.

In fact, the next day Davey crews working for PGE were at work in San Lorenzo. They were immediately threatened with legal action by county officials if they continued using the offensive pruning technique. The crews ceased working and left San Lorenzo.

Under the county's General Ordinance Chapter 12.08, anyone who wants to prune a tree within the county's right of way must first get a permit from the Department of Public Works. Street trees in San Lorenzo fall within the county's right of way, which extends 25 feet in either direction from the centerline of a county street. At the time, neither PGE nor Davey held a permit from the county.

Under pressure, PGE agreed to an on-site negotiation of acceptable tree cutting in San Lorenzo on Jan. 11, using a tree on via Media as a prototype. At the negotiation Browne and Beasley debated every proposed cut on the tree. In the end, PGE agreed to a "modified V cut". On Jan. 15 the county issued a limited permit to Davey Co. The permit, which expires in one year, is for pruning street trees in San Lorenzo only, and comes with detailed specifications for pruning sycamores.

"I believe we've reached a good understanding as long as PGE's contractors follow the specifications and do the pruning in good faith," Browne said. "They need to be monitored a little bit to make sure they do that." In addition, Browne and other Public Works representatives are asking PGE to perform restorative pruning on the trees that have already been subjected to radical pruning by PGE contractors.

In the past PGE's information to residents did not include the important notice that a resident can refuse to let PGE cut a tree on the resident's property. PGE has promised that in the future residents will be told this.