Lafayette will spend $50,000 to hire an arborist and a gas pipeline safety expert, who will team with similar experts from PG&E to determine which and how many of the estimated 200 trees the utility will have to be cut down for better access to its gas pipelines.
The City Council voted 4-0 Monday night to go ahead with the tree assessment agreement with PG&E. Council member Gina Dawson recused herself from voting due to a conflict.
In 2014, PG&E started the Pipeline Pathways project, which proposed removing trees adjacent to its gas transmission pipelines, as to not endanger pipes and give first responders easier access to potential problems. Crews would also have better access to pipelines for inspections.
The utility giant initially told Lafayette the project required cutting down more than 1,200 trees, an idea that wasn't warmly embraced in the community. PG&E responded in 2015 by saying it only needed to chop down 272 trees. They also renamed their project the Community Pipelines Safety Initiative.
The city and PG&E reached a tentative agreement in 2017 to have the utility pay mitigation fees for each tree removed, plant new trees, and get the city's blessing before cutting trees down. After the advocacy group Save Lafayette Trees sued the city and PG&E, the utility pared down its estimate to 207 trees. The project stalled as PG&E filed for bankruptcy and dealt with its role in California's growing problem with wildfires.
Negotiations restarted earlier this year, with the company and the city tentatively agreeing to form a joint "tree advisory team" to form a plan.
City Manager Niroop Sirvatsa told the council either party can walk away from the agreement, and the city isn't bound to follow the conclusions of the tree advisory team.
"If all goes well and everybody agrees to the conclusions then we would enter into an agreement and the litigation would be dropped," Sirvatsa said. "I want to stress that our intent is to minimize the number of trees, if any, to be removed."
Council members also said they wanted to engage Save Lafayette Trees during the process. Mayor Susan Candell said she wants to "detangle" the city from related lawsuits.
"I'm optimistic that this process will eventually end up with an agreement that all the parties can agree with -- it may not be exactly perfect, because rarely are they exactly perfect, but at least I hope we can get to some sort of agreement by the end of this process," Candell said.
If both sides agree on the details of a plan moving forward, council members said they want to give the public at least 45 days to review the plan before the council votes on its implementation.