By John Ramos

LAFAYETTE (KPIX 5) — Four years after a citizens group in Lafayette sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over a plan to cut down hundreds of trees, a resolution to the lengthy legal battle may finally be near.

After the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, PG&E began an aggressive tree-cutting program near its pipelines. They told Lafayette they wanted to cut down 1,200 trees, many along the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail.

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To the people who live there, the trees are essential.

“We absolutely love the trees,” said neighbor Dinesh Gomes.  “There’s lots of beautiful oak trees and a lot of other trees in this neighborhood, which is why we also moved into this neighborhood.”

Residents then formed a group called “Save Lafayette Trees” which filed a lawsuit against PG&E.

Facing opposition, the utility cut its request down to 900 trees, then 272, and it now stands at 207.

Michael Dawson, who co-founded Save Lafayette Trees, said he thinks it was always about convenience, not safety.

“The only trees that should be removed,” Dawson told KPIX 5, “is a tree that is an immediate safety concern, an immediate risk to public health. That should be removed, and we support that.  Outside of that, we will continue to fight for all the trees.”

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But PG&E says easy access to its pipelines is about safety.

In a written statement to KPIX 5, PG&E Spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian wrote:

“PG&E’s Community Pipeline Safety Initiative is all about helping ensure safety crews can quickly access gas transmission pipelines in an emergency or for critical maintenance work.”

For four years, it’s been a standoff, but last week, a breakthrough.

To settle the lawsuit, the city and PG&E have agreed to each hire an independent arborist and a pipeline expert.  The four experts will then evaluate each tree to determine if it actually poses a danger.

There are no timelines set so far, but at its last meeting the City of Lafayette approved spending $50,000 to hire its two experts.  The findings are non-binding, so neither the city nor PG&E is required to accept the experts’ recommendations, but the very fact they’re being hired shows that both sides are getting tired of fighting about it.

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“I think this is a good-faith effort on all of our parts to say, let’s reboot,” said Dawson.  “Let’s start this process again, and really get to a conclusion. What’s the best thing for our community?”