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Rosedale Ranch's iconic palm trees are on the chopping block, and PG&E wields the ax

It was the 1940s, the end of World War II when U.S. Navy pilot Jim Gardiner came home to the fertile San Joaquin Valley and began to carve a working farm out of sagebrush and virgin land northwest of Bakersfield.

At the gateway to the property stood more than 250 palm trees planted in double rows in the shape of a cross. The trees, now known as the Cross of Palms, have been there, it is believed, since the 1880s.

"They are majestic, but PG&E is killing them one by one," said Jim Gardiner's son, Keith Gardiner.

On Monday, a tree removal service contracted by the giant utility cut down seven trees. Some weeks before that, six trees were leveled.

Keith Gardiner is beside himself with worry. He feels his family's heritage and his community's history are being threatened because PG&E placed the electrical lines too close to the already existing palms.

"PG&E obtained an easement to place a power line 12 feet from the trees in 1958, decades after the trees were planted," he said. "On occasion some palm fronds get close to the lines. It never has been a hazard and now they are claiming the trees are a danger.

"But it was PG&E's mistake placing the lines too close to existing trees," he said. "I have fought until I’m sick, to no avail."

In a statement, PG&E had this to say on the record.

"PG&E is taking steps every day to improve the safety and reliability of our electric system, which serves nearly 16 million people in Northern and Central California. This includes working with our customers and communities to manage vegetation located near power lines that could pose a safety concern.

"This routine vegetation work happens year-round in Kern County. As part of this ongoing safety work, PG&E identified hazardous trees on a property on Rudd Avenue in Bakersfield. We have reviewed the vegetation safety work with the property owner and discussed why we need to mitigate these hazards to the electric lines now by cutting down seven trees. We understand the landowner does not want the trees removed. However, the trees are located near distribution power lines, are in poor health, and are at risk of failing and falling into the facilities."

In the past six months, 13 trees on the property have been cut down, confirmed Katie Allen, a PG&E spokeswoman for Kern County. Allen couldn't immediately determine how many other trees the utility has removed, if any.

Stephen Montgomery, vice chair of the city of Bakersfield's Historic Preservation Commission, said the stand of palms deserves protection for its historic value. Out of concern, Montgomery reached out to the state Office of Historic Preservation for help and guidance.

Lucinda M. Woodward, supervisor of the Local Government and Environmental Compliance Unit for the state Office of Historic Preservation, said in an email reply to Montgomery that the Rosedale Ranch issue is "a situation for which our office has little to no information."

But Woodward did reveal something interesting.

"The Cross of Palms is on the California Register of Historic Places," Woodward said, "and is considered a historic property for purposes of review under the California Environmental Quality Act."

PG&E asserted that "no discretionary governmental permitting was required for this work and therefore CEQA would not apply."

"Over the years," the utility said, "there have been approximately 30 occurrences where trees on this property have either been in contact with the conductors or been within minimum distance requirements per state mandates."

Fatima Bugharin, vice president of the Kern County Historical Society and a tenacious researcher, found a document from 1997 in which officials in the Office of Historic Preservation assert that the Cross of Palms is eligible for federal protection as well.

Eligible, but not on a federal list of protected places.

In the report addressed to Dave H. Densmore, at that time division administrator with the Federal Highway Administration, Historic Preservation officials wrote that "the Cross of Palms, a formal landscape architectural feature located on Rudd Road in Bakersfield, is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places ... The Cross of Palms is the most significant remnant of the failed Rosedale Colony, an effort that sought to subdivide and sell tens of thousands of acres of land in 20 acre parcels.

"The Cross of Palms," the report concluded, "has retained its integrity of location, design, and association with the vision and plan outlined by the failed colony's organizers."

Indeed, the palms go back to the late 1800s when local developers subdivided the land in hopes of selling it in 20-acre plots. More than 250 palms were planted to add visual interest and prestige to the development.

For Gardiner, that history is proof enough that the trees deserve special consideration and protection.

But his family's history is also compelling. When the farm was sold by its owner Kern County Land Co. to Tenneco West in 1969, Jim Gardiner lost the lease on the farm that had been his life's work.

As his son Keith grew up and made his own career in ag, he watched and waited, planned and plotted. He made a pact with himself, that if ever the farm became available, he would buy it if he could.

More than 30 years later, in 2002, the opportunity arose — and Gardiner was there.

"I was able to buy back the farm my dad had put his heart and soul into," he said.

It was a dream come true.

Now, nearly two decades after returning to Rosedale Ranch, Keith Gardiner is still fighting for its integrity. Jim Gardiner is 99 and he's watching, too.

"PG&E has the law and the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) on their side," he said.

"These palms are worth saving, they're worth replanting. They are icons," he said.

He may be tired, but he's not giving up.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.