This mix of pine and oak on Jeff Obenland’s Chandler Road property is considered a threat to Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative power lines across the road. Those with yellow ribbons will be cut down, while the oaks with red ribbons will be trimmed back. Photo by Debra Moore
“If I could, I would cut less trees,” said Bob Marshall, the general manager of Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative.
Marshall said he sympathizes with Chandler Road residents who don’t want their trees cut down, but his chief concern is fire and the electric company’s liability.
The cooperative plans to remove hazardous trees along the length of Chandler Road to prevent them from toppling into power lines and igniting a fire.
The work being completed this season is concentrated on a stretch of road east of the intersection with Quincy Junction Road.
Trees are marked on both sides of the roadway, with most concentrated on the north side.
Chandler Road residents acknowledge that some trees are hazards, but argue that the electric cooperative has gone too far.
For example, 38 trees are marked on Dave Montanari’s property.
“We’re reacting to the aggressiveness of the marking,” Chandler Road resident Greg Jewer said. He and his wife, Meridy Muir, are vocal opponents of the tree removal process.
Muir counted more than 120 marked trees in an eight-tenths of a mile stretch. She tied many of them with yellow ribbons to highlight the extent of the cutting.
The couple and more than 40 of their neighbors voiced their concerns at a meeting in June 2012, when the first round of trees was marked for removal.
Representatives from the electric cooperative, CalFire and the county’s public works department, along with registered forester Danielle Banchio, also attended that meeting.
“We were told at that meeting that they would communicate with us when they planned to mark more trees,” Muir said.
Many residents said that notification never happened and they came home to find their trees marked with blue dots.
When asked about the notification process, Marshall said that the cooperative “will do a better job of letting each landowner know when we are going on their property next year and will try to accommodate interested property owners who respond to us when we send them letters.”
He said the cooperative would also make phone calls before visiting the properties.
Pine trees will be cut down, while many of the oaks will be trimmed back.
During a visit to his property, Jeff Obenland pointed to the large number of pines and oaks that had been marked.
Obenland said he understands the rationale for removing a couple of the trees, but questions the rest.
He pointed to the power lines across the road and asked how the trees could pose a threat, especially the oaks. He said he was told that during a severe windstorm an uprooted tree could fly into the power lines. He found that scenario unlikely.
But from the electric cooperative’s perspective, even if it is unlikely, it could happen, and the cooperative would be liable.
Recent multimillion-dollar payouts made by other power companies fuel the cooperative’s motivation to eliminate potential hazards.
Some property owners offered to assume the liability.
“A homeowner can indemnify us for damage to their property, but can’t indemnify us for damages off their property,” Marshall said. “And even if they could, they would have to carry $20 million in insurance.”
In 2010, San Diego Gas & Electric agreed to pay the state $14.8 million for three fires that were caused by their power lines, and the city of San Francisco paid the federal government $7 million for fires that resulted from tree limbs being too close to power lines.
But, to remove the trees, the cooperative must receive written permission from the homeowners.
“Six more permission slips are needed,” Banchio said during an interview last week.
Obenland is one of the property owners who hasn’t given his permission. “I’m not going to,” he said.
Greh Lohn, the assistant general manager of the electric division for Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative, said that similar work has already been completed in Mohawk Vista, C Road and Greenhorn and those residents signed their permission slips.
“We’ve had some people that hold off for awhile,” he said, but once they learn about the power line codes and compliance, they sign.
But, what if they don’t?
Banchio said that in the past CalFire has cited the electric company and then notified the property owner’s insurance.
“It has gone to court in the past,” she said. “ But there has never been an instance where PSREC was denied.”
Facing the inevitable
Though the Chandler residents are making a stand, they realize that their chance of saving the trees that are already marked is slim.
“Once they are marked, they can’t be unmarked because you’re guaranteeing that it won’t fall,” Muir said.
Shirley Shaw has lived in Plumas County all of her life and on Chandler Road for the past 56 years.
Seven trees in her manicured front lawn are slated for removal.
“My husband and I are both heartbroken,” she said.
But Shaw has resigned herself to seeing the trees removed.
“We’re all against it, but for sure it’s going to happen,” she said.
Shaw doesn’t blame the forester. “You can’t help but like her,” she said.
“Danielle has a checklist,” Jewer said. “It’s objective to her.”
The residents say that Banchio is following the directive of the cooperative, which they maintain is too aggressive.
“Danielle has her professional future on the line,” Chandler resident Holly George said. “She’s in a tough spot.”
George doesn’t have any trees marked on her property yet, but the project is moving in her direction.
“I will probably have some in the next round,” she said.
County residents who don’t reside on Chandler are also chiming in on the situation.
“I do not own property along Chandler Road, but I am a concerned citizen,” Jeanette Brauner said. “Since she (Danielle Banchio) considers herself liable if any unmarked tree should come down, she has done a thorough job of marking.”
Brauner said that she had questioned the need to take all of the trees at one time, but was told it was more cost-effective to treat the parcels once, rather than return later.
Bob Marshall, PSREC general manager, agreed and said it’s expensive to return.
“We will be using a crane for speed and safety. The setup and tear-down costs for the job are generally the same whether it is one tree or several. And this also means that we would have to treat everywhere else just like Chandler Road,” Marshall said. “This would add significant costs to the cooperative and that would be paid by all the members of the cooperative.”
What about the stumps?
Once the trees are harvested, they will either be given to the property owner for firewood or removed.
But the stumps will remain. Some neighbors suggested that it would produce a lot of goodwill if the electric cooperative paid to have the stumps ground, at least in situations like that of the Shaws, where the trees are being removed from a manicured area, but that isn’t going to happen.
“It would be a high cost to the co-op,” Lohn said, “and we haven’t done it in other areas.”
The work is scheduled to begin the middle of this month.
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