PG&E-contracted tree removal crews on hot seat for entering properties without notifying homeowners

The fence to Sheryl McKeown-Harper's backyard is pictured. A PG&E-contracted tree removal crew cut a zip tie to get in.

A Mario’s Tree Service crew, contracted by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., recently came under scrutiny after entering a property in Wilseyville and removing trees under the utility’s wildfire safety program without notifying the homeowner two days in advance.

Although it’s not a new problem by any means, work crews not notifying local residents of their presence is drawing an increasing amount of ire from homeowners in the Mother Lode.

Wilseyville resident Sheryl McKeown-Harper said she has experienced issues with the contractor twice in the past few weeks. She said she had already negotiated which trees should be taken and gave crews full access to her property on the condition that she be notified when they enter the backyard.

“I wanted to be there to be responsible for the safety of my animals,” McKeown-Harper said.

The first instance occurred when she was traveling back home from across the country, and her cameras alerted her that someone had entered her yard.

“No one approached the front door to announce they were there,” she said. After that, she put a zip-tie cable around her gate to deter crews from entering without notice, but that didn’t solve the problem.

“When I came home, I saw that the last tree that needed to come down was already down,” she said. “They cut my fence open ... My dog was probably scared to death.”

While they “cut down exactly what they were supposed to, neatly piled the wood, cleaned up branches (and) had done all their chipping,” the crew left empty soda and water bottles and banana peels in the yard, McKeown-Harper said.

Mario’s never returned her calls, but representatives with PG&E and Assessments, Consulting, Representation, and Training (ACRT), a vegetation management company contracted by the utility, told her that they would be working to make sure the issue wouldn’t occur again.

McKeown-Harper said educating the contractor would not be enough, and hopes there will be a financial penalty.

“I am not going to let this go,” she said. “Unless they have some kind of financial penalty for this, they’re not going to change.”

While the crews had legal access due to an easement, the utility has an obligation to notify homeowners of maintenance on private property 48 hours in advance, according to PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo.

“When just doing routine work like this was, the procedure is to stop and get ahold of the homeowner. If there are locked gates, we work with them. We obviously apologize, and we’re working with the contractor to ensure they are following procedure to keep this from happening again,” Merlo said. “We have a legal obligation to keep vegetation away from our lines, (but) if a property owner requests to be present, we obviously encourage contractors to reach out and set that up.”

Sgt. Greg Stark with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office said that if property owners suspect that someone is trespassing, they should call 911 immediately before any situation escalates.

“If somebody is trespassing on their property, we will dispatch a deputy to handle the situation,” Stark said, adding that he encourages homeowners to clearly mark their properties with “NO TRESPASSING” signs. “Historically when we have issues with PG&E (entering properties without notification) it’s either because the homeowner didn’t like that there was an easement or didn’t know there was an existing easement.”

He said there has been an uptick in these kinds of cases since the 2015 Butte Fire, since the utility has had to service so many of its lines.

Homeowners with concerns about tree removal crews entering properties without notification can call PG&E’s customer service line at 1-800-743-5000.

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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