WALNUT CREEK -- Pacific Gas and Electric's plan to take down hundreds of trees for better access to the utility's natural gas pipelines would mean barren medians next to John Muir Medical Center and shadeless sidewalks on Locust Street downtown.

Nine trees in the Shell Ridge Open Space would disappear, and 73 trees along Ygnacio Valley Road would be wiped out.

This is all part of PG&E's $500 million Pipeline Pathways project, a statewide initiative that aims to clear obstructions from the utility company's 6,750 miles of gas lines from Bakersfield to Eureka. The project will take out all structures and vegetation to provide 10 feet of clearance on either side of PG&E's main gas lines. PG&E says it needs to remove the trees, shrubs and structures -- on private and public property -- to ensure pipeline safety. It's a top PG&E priority in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

While she says she is concerned about safety, Walnut Creek Mayor Kristina Lawson, incensed with how PG&E has handled the Pathways project so far, launched an online petition Saturday calling for the power giant to meet with residents and not chop down any trees until more information is provided. As of Wednesday, the petition had more than 1,600 signatures.

"To date, PG&E has not provided any evidence that any public safety concern exists," said Lawson in a letter to PG&E officials. "As an elected official entrusted with protecting our community values, and as one of your customers, I can tell you that our community deserves better from your company."


Advertisement

Since Lawson wrote the letter and started the petition, PG&E has contacted the city and expressed a desire to work together.

The trees are slated to begin coming down in May. Virtually every area in Walnut Creek would be affected by the project, from open space to schools to hundreds of backyards. Some of the clear-cutting would be quite obvious, such as the takedown of 48 trees along Locust Street downtown that stretch from Lacassie to Cypress Street. Other trees set to come down include 32 on a city park trail behind Deerpark Drive, 11 trees on North Main Street in front of Target, 23 trees on Boundary Oak Golf Course, 12 trees next to Foothill Middle School and 22 trees along Walnut Boulevard.

Around 350 trees that will come down are on private property, 249 on city property, 107 on commercial property, 22 on PG&E owned land and seven on East Bay Municipal Utility District property, according to PG&E information given to Walnut Creek. Valley oak and liquidambar trees are the species most represented in proposed removals. PG&E will replace the trees and bushes, though not in the same places. In the roadway medians, for example, PG&E has plans to put in new low-lying plants.

The petition on change.org, gives an opportunity for residents to sound off -- and they have.

Sherry Shandrew of Walnut Creek said, "The trees are one of the main things that make this city so beautiful. We need to have a say when trees are going to be cut down."

While PG&E Spokeswoman Debbie Felix understands the concern, she said things like a discoloration on grass above a gas pipe can tell PG&E workers there is a leak -- one example of why the areas along pipelines must be clear and visible. She admits some trees have been there longer than the pipes. The company's practices in the past were not what they should have been, she said.

Some residents may disagree with what that is. Donna Leach said in the comments on the petition that PG&E needs to follow the city's process of getting permits to remove trees.

"They should be accountable to demonstrate this is the least invasive option to secure access to their lines and they should compensate homeowners for removing their property," she wrote. "PG&E needs to work with Walnut Creek residents. The trees of Walnut Creek are part of the reason it is where I want to live."

PG&E officials admit they need to do a better job of communicating with cities and residents and plan to do just that. But they also stand by that they have the power and right to make the gas lines the safest they can by improving, modernizing and creating easier access.

This program is just now being rolled out in Contra Costa and Alameda counties after being introduced in Fresno and parts of San Jose.

Walnut Creek joined cities including Concord, Lafayette, Danville, Dublin, El Cerrito, Livermore and Pleasanton in a coalition opposed to PG&E's plan and demanding an alternative plan.

To see maps of where the trees are proposed to come down go to www.walnut-creek.org

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.

---