By Bruce McPherson, County Supervisor 5th District
Many San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley residents have called or sent email to our office during the last several weeks concerned about how and when PG&E will remove or trim trees as part of the utility’s Community Wildfire Safety Program. Let me assure you, I share those concerns and have been working with my colleagues at the County to understand the rapidly changing situation and how we can best keep you informed.
In June, PG&E representatives gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors about the Community Wildfire Safety Program, which includes enhanced trimming and removal of trees to reduce fire danger around PG&E infrastructure and potentially shutting off power during extreme conditions.
We don’t argue PG&E has a responsibility — actually a mandate from its state regulator—to reduce harm in light of the historically devastating fires in Sonoma and Napa counties in 2017. Conditions in the San Lorenzo Valley in particular present extreme danger for wildfire.
What we are concerned about is the manner in which PG&E has communicated about the scope and timing of its program so far, and its representation to private property owners about their options. After saying there was no implementation timeline in June, PG&E set up a basecamp in Scotts Valley’s Skypark in early September as a staging ground for Wildfire Safety operations. The lack of public outreach before the basecamp was established has contributed to a climate of confusion and suspicion that was then exacerbated by stories shared with our office about negative interactions between vegetation crews and private property owners.
The California Public Utilities Commission has given PG&E the authority to perform enhanced vegetation control, but PG&E is still obligated to contact private property owners and obtain consent prior to removing or trimming vegetation outside the standard 4-foot clearance. Residents have the ability to refuse or negotiate, though PG&E may ask them to sign a statement to that effect and continue trying to educate property owners about the vegetation removal program. However, the County has obtained assurances that crews will not threaten residents with power shut-off if they refuse to let trees be trimmed to removed. If residents have experiences that are different than what is described above, please contact our office and we will forward the concerns to PG&E.
In addition to what happens on private property, we also are concerned about the level of environmental review required of PG&E in order to receive a permit to work in the County’s right of way. At the time of this writing, the County Counsel’s office remains in negotiation with PG&E, and the Board of Supervisors is leaving all its options open.
The point is not to take a combative posture with PG&E. It is simply to strike a balance between keeping our community safe from the threat of wildfire while preserving the breathtaking beauty of our county. A thoughtful, environmentally sensitive wildfire safety program is OK. Excessive clearing in our beautiful Valley is not.
We do not know the full scope of the program, countywide or in the 5th District, but the work is expected to last several months. In terms of preparing for the possibility of temporarily shutting off power as a preventative measure to reduce fire risk, PG&E recommends ensuring the utility has the most up-to-date contact information for customers, as well as any details about medical vulnerabilities that could be made worse by losing power. Being able to warn customers before power is cut is critical to PG&E‘s ability to minimize impacts.
Jet Airplane Noise
While we monitor the Community Wildfire Safety Program rollout, we also continue advocating for our residents regarding jet noise. On Sept. 18, the Board of Supervisors voted to join a new South Bay Roundtable related to southern arrivals into San Francisco International Airport. More than three years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration without warning changed the historic path of southern arrivals from over the Westside of Santa Cruz and the San Lorenzo Valley (BSR) to a new path over Capitola, Happy Valley and the Summit (SERFR), based on the agency’s NextGen flight safety and efficiency protocols.
I participated in a six-month Congressional Select Committee that eventually recommended by the narrowest margin allowed under its rules to have the FAA move the path back to BSR, which I did not support in favor of an approach that instead determined the least impactful path. However, I joined other committee members in unanimous support of nine conditions if the path were moved back, one third of which the FAA has since said it will not be able to meet.
Today, the FAA continues to utilize SERFR and has not signaled if or when it will move the path. As a federal agency, it does not make decisions based on local government preferences or even Congressional Select Committee recommendations. That said, I supported the County joining the Roundtable for one year to determine its effectiveness as a forum for residents to share concerns with the FAA. The Board appointed County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios as our county’s representative and a neutral party.
Felton Library Groundbreaking / Highway 9 Master Plan
On a final note, we have a lot to celebrate. We broke ground for the new Felton Library on Sept. 21 and the design of adjacent Nature Discovery Park is under way. Strong library bond funds will also allow us to increase our budget for the Boulder Creek branch improvements. Meanwhile, we hope to see a final draft soon of the Highway 9 Master Plan, including safety and traffic improvements around the combined school campuses in Felton.
I hope you had a terrific summer and look forward to an exciting autumn.