As Malibu recovers from the Woolsey Fire, citizens and City officials question whether SCE is over-reacting with regard to its trimming and cutting of trees and whether the utility followed appropriate procedures when erecting a staging area to coordinate its activities. Malibu Magazine talked to stakeholders, city officials, and SCE representatives regarding next steps.
Written by Barbara Burke
SCE Vegetation Plans Appall Citizens
“In the past, SCE has dealt with a six-and-a half-foot area on both sides of a power pole when it conducted vegetation management,” Mayor Pro Tem Karen Farrer told Malibu Magazine. “Now, that area has been expanded to twelve-feet on both sides of such infrastructure.” The 12-foot radius derives from a standard suggested by – but not mandated by – the California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”).
Malibu Magazine reached out to Susan Cox, SCE’s Media Spokesperson, on April 30 to discuss the issue. “Southern California Edison understands the trimming of trees is a sensitive issue for many of our customers,” Cox said. “However, our first priority continues to be public safety, the safety of our customers, employees and contractors, and the reliability of the power grid. State regulations require utilities to trim trees or vegetation so they don’t grow into or fall into high voltage power lines, which can not only cause a power outage, but could spark a fire or be a danger to the public.”
When asked about the new 12-foot radius guidelines, Cox responded, “New recommendations for tree clearances adopted by the CPUC in 2017, include a minimum 12-ft. clearance at the time of trim between a tree and power line in high fire risk areas, regardless of the species and how fast it grows.” Previously, California regulations and the CPUC guidance required utilities to trim a 4-ft. minimum clearance between a tree and a power line, plus an additional 6-10 ft. to allow for the tree’s growth over a year’s time, Cox stated, adding. “Depending on the tree species, that meant a minimum 10-ft. clearance.
Some Malibu citizens are vociferously objecting to SCE carte blanche using the 12-foot standard. They assert two salient points. First, there are alternative ways other than significant tree trimming or tree cutting for the utility to address concerns when vegetation is located near SCE’s utility wires and officials are concerned about fire hazards. The CPUC vegetation management order, CPUC General Order 95, Rule 35, states that those alternatives include insulating the wires. Second, the City has jurisdiction to require a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) for tree trimming, a procedure that, according to Kraig Hill, City of Malibu Planning Commissioner, “would likely involve a more specific inventory of planned cuts, with some oversight by the City of Malibu’s Planning Department and the City Biologist or a consulting biologist.”
Rumors regarding SCE planning to fell groves of centuries-old sycamore trees on Bonsall Drive and other trees elsewhere have caused extreme citizen concerns, Farrer said, culminating in lengthy discussions regarding those concerns at the April 24 City Council meeting, followed by a series of teleconferences between city officials, including City Manager Reva Feldman, City Planning Director Bonnie Blue, Farrer, City legal counsel, SCE and representatives of Los Angeles County.
An example of citizens’ distress was posted on a Malibu-centric Facebook page in a comment stating: “I received a call from the power company alerting me to their plans to cut trees within 12 feet of their lines as a future prevention: is there anything we can do other than sit and cry? This grove of sycamores on this street is 250 years old and extends the length of the street . . . the beauty of Bonsall Drive owes much to the beauty of these old trees, the sense of sheltering they provide, as well as their graceful forms.”
Farrer noted that citizens on Dume Drive, Zumirez, Wildlife Road and Grayfox had expressed similar concerns. As Malibu Magazine goes to print, SCE is beginning to cut trees in Malibu, starting on Bonsall Drive and moving to the east side of Malibu where City Councilperson Skylar Peak and others asked the company to focus first in order to allow trees on the westside of Malibu to heal some from the trauma of the Woolsey Fire. Residents near Malibu who live in the unincorporated area are also experiencing angst about the tree trimming and cutting.
SCE is working with the City of Malibu to address both the City’s and citizens’ concerns, Cox stated, noting “SCE met with the Malibu planning director last week and agreed that SCE could proceed with its vegetation management plan to conduct routine tree trimming beginning in grid 6 of the map (a map depicting the various grids can be found on page 67). There are just under 300 trees identified in that grid that are in need of trimming. Routine trimming will proceed in other grids once Edison completes grid 6.”
In a letter to the Malibu City Council expressing objections, Patt Healy, a Malibu environmental advocate, explained why citizens are so upset about SCE indiscriminately trimming or cutting down trees.
“Edison has to be more selective in its clearing of trees for several reasons. More than 23,000 trees were lost locally in the Santa Monica Mountains due to the recent fire,” Healy wrote. “Now, Edison wants to continue the devastation by chopping, topping and over pruning more trees. Trees are important. They sequester carbon. Trees give us oxygen. It is nesting season and trimming trees with nests is prohibited.”
To date, many details regarding how SCE will administer the cutting and trimming of trees within twelve feet of its power lines and poles and its annual vegetation management still are in the development phase, according to Farrer, Rudy Gonzales, Government Relations Representative for SCE and Malibu City Council person Mikke Pierson.
Malibu Magazine asked Cox for clarification. “SCE and Malibu will continue to work together and come to an understanding of what Malibu will require and review for issuance of a coastal development permit (CDP),” She said. “The requirements will encompass city-protected tree species (western sycamore, oaks, alder and black walnuts), heavy trims requiring a branch cut greater than 7” in diameter, full removal of a tree, and tree trimming in environmentally sensitive habitat areas.” However, she added, “If the city refuses to allow tree trimming to continue, Edison is permitted to cut the tree to a safe condition until a permit has been obtained.”
What Citizens Can Expect Regarding SCE’s Actions
Gonzales stated that when SCE decides to trim or cut trees on a citizen’s parcel, as in years past, “SCE will engage in robust communications with citizens, who will be provided with advance notice of between thirty and forty-five days, as well as with notices a few days before we come onto their land and, of course, on the day that we enter their land. SCE places door hangers on citizens’ doors that have all the appropriate contact information.” Citizens who want to express concerns should contact the SCE representative named on the door hangers as that is the representative whom is most knowledgeable about a given tree or trees.
Healy told Malibu Magazine that before SCE begins to work on trees, the utility should be mindful of the fact that many native trees are protected by law. Specifically, the California Native Plant Protection Act protects all native Oak tree species, California Sycamores, California Bay, Toyon and California Black Walnut trees when trees have reached four inches or greater in diameter at a height of 4.5 feet above ground.
Malibu City Councilperson Mikke Pierson told Malibu Magazine that constituents had sent him picture of trees along the coast that SCE has cut drastically. “The pictures were awful because many of the trees were just butchered,” Pierson said. “I advocate more sensitivity be used in deciding which trees to cut and that a CDP or an ECDP (emergency coastal development permit) be required in consultation with arborists.”
Healy wholeheartedly agrees. “There is a community-wide concern regarding Edison’s indiscriminate trees destruction plan in the name of safety,” She said in a letter to Malibu City Council dated April 20. “Edison told the city council that there are 5,000 trees in Malibu impacted by its cutting plan.” Healy expressed concerns that there will be dramatic visual impact in Malibu from the project and it would change the look and character of the city, noting that in a city council meeting in early April a SCE representative had alluded to such a scenario.
“In many instances this brutal approach will result in leaving only tree trunks and limbs and leaves will be destroyed,” Healy wrote. “In others, trees will have a hard time surviving since the tree will not be getting enough nutrients for the energy needed to survive.”
Healy, Pierson and others express concerns that there is no discernment in how Edison trims the trees around its wires and the utility may cut trees even when doing so is not needed.
“One way to see that reasonableness prevails rather than having Edison dictate what it is going to do is for the City to take control of the situation and oversee it by issuing the required CDP,” Healy said. “The City can then insist Edison use a rational approach in all instances.”
Healy noted that the Coastal Commission has stated it requires a CDP if there if there is a protected tree or any major vegetation removal and L.A. County is requiring a CDP in the Santa Monica Mountains. Accordingly, she maintains that “To avoid whole scale tree mutilation and destruction,” the City should require the same. City Planning Director Bonnie Blue was asked at a Malibu Planning Commission meeting on April 22 why SCE needed to take out a CDP from Los Angeles County for tree trimming outside city limits, but no similar permit from the City of Malibu. She provided no answer.
SCE has Options Other Than Cutting or Severely Trimming Trees
Hill pointed out that trimming vegetation is only one of four permissible options to address power lines being affected by trees. In a letter to City Council dated April 20, he noted that CPUC Rule 35 states that when SCE knows that “its circuit energized at 750 volts or less shows strain or evidences abrasion from vegetation contact, the condition shall be corrected by reducing conductor (wire) tension, rearranging or replacing the conductor, pruning the vegetation, or placing mechanical protection [insulation] on the conductors.”
Accordingly, cutting down or seriously pruning vegetation is not SCE’s only option. Hill stated, “In implementing the Rule, SCE could just as well decided that its policy, whenever vegetation is present, is that lines should be covered conductor (insulated wires). [F]or SCE to suggest that its primary recourse is to trim trees is arbitrary.” Hill, Healy and others also noted that the City has jurisdiction to require SCE to obtain a CDP ancillary to the CPUC rules.
Overall, those stating objections believe that SCE is acting rashly and without due regard to proper processes.
“ESHA is also protected and Edison failed to address how it would protect ESHA areas, especially since it is clearing habitat within a 12-foot radius of its poles,” Healy said. “Edison’s vegetation plan is not only a visual blight, but an environmental disaster.”
SCE’s Temporary Maintance Yard
The tree cutting controversy is not the only action by SCE that has caused citizens to assert that the environment is being harmed. At a recent City Council meeting, Pierson asked about the large SCE staging lot that SCE has constructed on Stuart Ranch Road below City Hall. Gonzales told the City Council that the lot was for “enhanced overhead inspection work.” The lot is not being used as a staging area for tree trimming.
The staging area, which SCE calls a “temporary maintenance yard,” has also raised citizen ire. Convinced that fundamental principles of procedural due process were violated, some Malibu citizens are furious because, without giving notice to the Malibu City Council or providing an opportunity for a public hearing - and with only the imprimatur of city staff who swiftly issued an emergency over-the-counter permit and a subsequent ECDP, SCE began to bulldoze fields on a private parcel located at the corner of Stuart Ranch Road and Civic Center Way. The property is known as the “Bell property,” and has a physical address of 23801 Stuart Ranch Road. Surfrider Partners, LLC, owned by Bradley Bell, acquired the parcel from Hitoshi Yamaguchi, Successor Trustee of the Tokiye A. Yamaguchi Revocable Living Trust by Grant Deed dated January 14, 2009.
On February 12, citizens noticed the bulldozing and quickly took to social media sites voicing surprise, confusion and outrage. Soon, they were calling City Hall, demanding explanations.
“How can SCE do this without red tape or substantive review while hundreds of residents whose homes were burned (possibly by SCE) are paralyzed in their rebuilding efforts?” asked Bruce Silverstein in a Facebook post. Silverstein, who owns a home in Malibu Knolls above the City Hall, is exploring filing a lawsuit in the matter. After initial emails by citizens asking what was going on at the Bell property, they learned that the City had given SCE an emergency permit to prepare the property for operating a temporary material yard “to support urgent wildfire mitigation maintenance activities scheduled for existing infrastructure.” It is important to note that on January 22, Amy Biamonte, Right of Way Agent for SCE, sent an email to the City of Malibu seeking permission to use the Chili Cook-off property, owned by the City of Malibu, for this purpose, noting that parcel had been utilized as a command post to respond to the Woolsey Fire and stating that the Chili Cook-off property “is perfect for our needs and we are hoping it may be available for use again.” Biamonte also sent a follow-up email, noting that “SCE entered into a license agreement with the City of Malibu for the Woolsey Fire,” at the Chili Cook-off site. She stated that the term of that license “extended to November 9, 2019,” and queried “would it be possible to amend the agreement for the current use we are requesting?”
However, the City denied SCE’s request to use the Chili Cook-off Property on grounds that the City was obligated to provide parking for Chumash Days, a two-day cultural event in April, and noting that there would be a “week-long preparation” for doing so, stating that it had to use the Chili Cook-off property for employee parking necessitated by a now-postponed solar panel project, and that “other rentals have requested the use of this lot.”
On February 4, SCE sent a letter to the City informing that it had located the Bell property directly across from the Chili Cook Off lot and justifying its need to obtain the permit by explaining that it conducts infrastructure and equipment inspections as part of ongoing regular operations and “in high fire risk areas, inspections are a top priority and part of SCE’s wildfire mitigation plan.” Further, SCE stated that it intended to utilize the Temporary Material Yard for approximately six months to allow contractors to stage materials “to support urgent wildfire mitigation maintenance activities scheduled for existing infrastructure.”
The company averred that the project would “not result in the expansion or increase in electrical use and capacity, and will only support needed repairs and maintenance.” The request also stated, without providing any support, that “preparation and use of the yard is not expected to result in impacts to sensitive environmental resources,” and that SCE believed that the City’s review of the permit request would “confirm that the proposed project is exempt from the need for a coastal permit pursuant to the Malibu Local Coastal Plan, Coastal Act, or CEQA requirements.”
Bonnie Blue, Planning Director for the City of Malibu, wrote an email to SCE officials on February 5, stating, “I think the most expeditious way to permit this is with an Emergency Coastal Development Permit (ECDP).” In a later email, she stated, “I want to clarify that I am only commenting on the method of permitting an ECDP – NOT promising an approval. There are significant Public Works issues to be addressed.”
On February 7, the City sent SCE stamped Over the Counter plans, approving the preparation of the site. Subsequently, on February 15, after SCE had begun to alter the parcel, the City issued an ECDP for the 90-day use. Silverstein maintains that because the ECDP was issued by the City after SCE had begun to alter the parcel, relevant laws were violated.
On February 11, City Staff sent SCE an email stating, “Could you give me an estimate on how much grading is to be done, including total yardage graded?”
Genevieve Cross, SCE’s Environmental Advisor for Major Environmental Projects, replied, “For grading – the entire 7-acre site is going to be tilled in order to level it and place rock. We are not removing soil offsite, or doing massive grading, since the site is pretty flat. Because of the anticipated rain, the crews are developing some berm along the southern boundary to protect the site from runoff.”
Readers should note – that email exchange referenced “grading,” and not “grubbing,” and “grading” is prohibited by law during a rainy season. Further, the City of Malibu’s “Site Grading Policy” does not mention “grubbing.”
On February 11, Craig George, Environmental Sustainability Director for the City of Malibu, issued an email stating that “Fortunately or unfortunately, it (referring to the scope of work being proposed by SCE) is just grubbing on steroids. Does not rise to the level of grading yet.”
Although citizens have subsequently asked the City to address the issue, there is no clear clarification regarding what distinguishes “grubbing,” from “grading,” in California, except for an email that city staff sent to an inquiring citizen on February 12, stating that activity on the parcel that day constituted “grubbing or scraping up the vegetation, putting up temporary fences and laying down gravel.”
February 12- Landscape on the Bell Property is Altered by SCE
On February 11, the Malibu City Council held a regularly scheduled meeting and there was no mention of SCE’s request to utilize the Bell property as a staging area. On February 12, SCE began to bulldoze the field.
Dismayed citizens called and emailed the City expressing concern. Malibuite Mari Stanley’s email objected to the issuance of an emergency permit, noting that the City Planning Commission was neither consulted nor involved in that decision. Her email stated in relevant part, “I and many others are alarmed with grading and what seems to be a slurry surface application on a property that is adjacent to wetlands and historically known as Egret Pond for the bird life that has historically inhabited the area.” Stanley maintained that SCE’s planned activities did not constitute an “emergency,” and she expressed concerns about the water table and toxins possibly filtering through to the Malibu Lagoon, which could affect the water quality. Stanley also noted that the activities were being conducted during rain and postulated that “the grading should cease with a focus on prevention of mud flow that can cause problems for other properties and enter drains to impact the water quality of our shoreline lagoon.”
Stanley, Silverstein and other citizens expressed concerns about the Bell property abutting an adjacent property, referred to as the White parcel, that is designated as ESHA. Stanley questioned why the City didn’t allow SCE to conduct its operations on the Chili Cook-Off site, stating that would be preferable to “tearing up a property with far more significant habitat to protect from grading.”
Responding, the City explained that “SCE is prepping for a laydown yard they will use for about the next three months for staging materials and equipment while they work on urgent fire hazard inspections and related hazard mitigation repairs.”
On April 30, Cox discussed SCE’s use of the property with Malibu Magazine, stating, “The property on the west side of Stuart Ranch Road is currently being utilized as a temporary construction yard as SCE completes its enhanced overhead inspection scope of work in the area. The field was graded and a layer of gravel was put down. SCE is likely to be there until August.”
“Can you please define what “enhanced overhead inspection is?” Malibu Magazine asked.
“Enhanced overhead inspection scope of work entails work being completed by Edison linemen temporarily housed at the Edison construction laydown yard in Malibu,” Cox said. “The scope of work ranges from placing “high voltage” signs on poles to complete pole replacements.”
Silverstein, Patt Healy, a Malibu environmental advocate, and others voiced objections. Silverstein maintains that although the City clearly knew there were wetlands on an adjacent property – known as the White property - the City did not follow applicable law mandating that a biologist conduct an inspection of a parcel that is adjacent to wetlands before any activities on the parcel begin. Therefore, Silverstein, Healy and others allege that the city staff violated substantive environmental laws and procedural requirements by issuing an emergency permit without an environmental inspection and analyses being conducted, and therefore SCE violated the law by improperly working on the lot.
Their position is bolstered in the records that the City produced in response to Silverstein’s report. On February 13 – the day after SCE began “grubbing” the property, Bonnie Blue sent SCE an email stating “As a head’s up, the property adjacent to the west of the lot you’re using has been mapped in the past as containing wetlands. We are looking at that issue closely and may need you to adjust the boundaries of the laydown yard to ensure an adequate buffer is maintained from that area.”
Silverstein also maintains that the City did not comply with the Malibu Local Coastal Program standards to make a determination regarding the status of environmental conditions on the Bell parcel as well as on the adjacent White parcel before issuing SCE a permit.
He also notes that the City had an obligation under relevant law to evaluate whether there were any ecological, archaeological, traffic or aesthetic factors militating against approving the permit. In that regard, Silverstein points out that the City’s biologist did not even review the premises until February 25, many days after alterations to the Bell parcel began on February 12, a flaw that most likely explains why SCE was forced on February 22 to remediate part of the Bell parcel by restoring a segment of the parcel that abuts the White parcel that is clearly in an ESHA designation and to place a buffer zone in the area to protect the wetlands on the White parcel. Moreover, Silverstein and others also note that SCE’s working to alter the fields – whether properly characterized as “grubbing,” or “grading” - took not only the citizens by surprise, but also occurred without the members of the City Council being informed.
Malibu Magazine has confirmed the truth of that claim with Mayor Jefferson Wagner and Councilperson Mikke Pierson, both of whom stated that they were unaware of the SCE permit issuing or of the work on the Bell lot until citizens became aware of the activities on February 12. It should be noted that City staff did quickly place a small sign regarding the pending permit on the Bell parcel only a couple of days before SCE began its operations. Further, notably, there is no record that County, State or Federal agencies were consulted in advance of permitting the project.
“There was no environmental analyses conducted for the Bell parcel because the Malibu Bay Company Development Proposal did not include that property,” Silverstein told Malibu Magazine. “What is very interesting is that there are documents that, when Malibu Presbyterian sought to use the Bell property to operate a temporary church after its property was destroyed in the 2007 fire, the church abandoned those efforts because it was informed that it was an environmentally sensitive lot.”
Where Things Stand Now
Silverstein is exploring pursuing litigation against the City for the expedited and allegedly flawed processing of SCE’s request to use the Bell parcel. He asserts that the Chili Cook-off lot should have been used, which would not have implicated an ESHA and would not have resulted in harm to the public fisc because SCE would have paid the City rent. Whereas, as it stands now, a private party – Bell – receives rental monies from SCE.
Silverstein and Healy express concerns that the parcel cannot be properly remediated because gravel is integrated into the soil. Overall, they and other citizens are very troubled by the fact that a prime parcel of land in Malibu’s City Center has been altered, without the City complying with proper substantive and procedural safeguards and seemingly in defiance of the City’s stated policy to preserve precious lands in the middle of Malibu. MM