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Pruned to the ground 

PG&E tree trimming in Cambria is aggressive

click to enlarge PRUNING? :  PG&E has been cutting down trees in Cambria to make the way for power lines. They call it pruning, but the California Coastal Commission is investigating whether it was too much. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
  • PRUNING? : PG&E has been cutting down trees in Cambria to make the way for power lines. They call it pruning, but the California Coastal Commission is investigating whether it was too much.

If you’re driving through Cambria and see dismembered tree trunks strewn along the ground: Don’t worry, it’s just pruning.

As part of what officials call routine tree-trimming operations, PG&E sent crews to Cambria to clear power lines of trees and vegetation.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
County officials and representatives from the California Coastal Commission and Cal Fire are investigating to see if PG&E is sticking to regular “pruning,” or if they’ve overstepped the bounds. PG&E calls it pruning, but entire trees have been cut down in a sensitive habitat, without permits.

Or maybe they don’t need permits. Nancy Cave, a Coastal Commission supervisor, said the commission is trying to determine whether PG&E stayed within legal limits. Utility companies are allowed to clear power lines of trees and other vegetation in coastal zones without a permit from the Coastal Commission. In fact, such companies are required to clear a minimum distance around power lines and are therefore exempt from permit requirements for small pruning operations. The question is: How much was cut down and what was cut down?

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
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“We do allow minor clearance for protection of utility lines,” Cave said, “but it depends on what’s involved.”

PG&E’s situation in Cambria is complicated because the Coastal Commission and SLO County share jurisdiction of the coastal zone there. The Coastal Commission is preparing to investigate but county officials make their own determination whether a permit is required for vegetation-clearing projects along the North Coast.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTOS
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County Supervising Planner John Hofschroer said he had contacted county code enforcement officers, but he believed the tree cutting fell under a permit exemption. Some healthy adult trees may have been cut down, he said, but they were probably threatening power lines.

“It’s all up to the judgment of the [PG&E] arborist that it’s in hazardous condition or it presents an immediate threat to the power lines.”

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
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PG&E spokesman Kory Raftery declined to say how many trees were cut down because the information is “competitive” and “proprietary.” He declined to comment further when asked for clarification.

However, he said, the pruning this year might appear to be more extensive than usual: “It’s going to be a little more aggressive than our annual tree pruning.”

PG&E routinely prunes in Cambria and other forested areas where the trees pose an immediate or potential threat to elevated power lines. Most of the pruning—the annual type—is done to clear branches from power lines.

The company also goes in for more aggressive cuts, part of their reliability program, Raftery explained. Reliability pruning is more proactive. In other words, PG&E sends foresters, arborists, and engineers to identify trees that may pose a problem in the future.

Then they prune them, sometimes to the stump. Problem solved.

Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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