When Tom Reedy looked out into his backyard just before Thanksgiving, he saw an Avista crew checking out a power pole located in an easement on the north side of his property. He talked to the crew, which told him they were checking to see if the pole could handle the addition of a fiber optic cable CenturyLink was planning to install.
“They said it was for a customer in the neighborhood,” Reedy said.
The fiber-optic cable upgrade was part of a project to install new telephone poles in planting strips near the corner of Wall Street and 24th Avenue, stringing cables across the previously cable-free airspace. Neighbors say they weren’t notified of the project and will have to pay thousands of dollars if they want the unsightly poles moved.
The commotion, however, prompted the city of Spokane to change its permit application for similar projects in the future.
In November, Reedy and his wife, Marilyn, hadn’t heard anything about new overhead cables or telephone poles.
After making calls to the city of Spokane and telecommunications company CenturyLink, Tom Reedy said he was told by an engineer at CenturyLink that the cable connects AT&T with a cellphone tower located near Wilson Elementary School.
CenturyLink – which acquired Qwest – will not confirm that.
“We do not disclose the names of our clients,” Kerry Zimmer, marketing and development manager for CenturyLink in Eastern Washington, wrote in an email. “We install telephone poles and do regular maintenance on those poles. We are constantly replacing and monitoring our existing network.”
On Dec. 7, a work crew showed up to put in a telephone pole on the southwest corner of Wall and 24th Avenue. Kathleen Weisbrod, who lives on that corner, asked the crew for work permits.
“One worker said they had them and another said they didn’t need them. I asked them about our sprinkler system, and they replied that they would fix it if they hit anything,” Weisbrod said, who then asked the crew to stop what it was doing. The crew did and left.
That was the first time neighbors realized two new telephone poles were going in on the planting strips along Wall.
“I can’t believe they didn’t notify us,” said Marilyn Reedy.
Neighbors came up with alternate plan
Marilyn Reedy called the city and the Manito/Cannon Hill Neighborhood Council, and on the evening of Dec. 7 the neighbors had a street-corner meeting with Dan Eaton, permit coordinator for the city’s engineering services department.
“He was not only responsive, he met us in our neighborhood to outline what he knew about the project,” wrote Deb Barnes, president of the Manito/Cannon Hill Neighborhood Council, in a statement on behalf of the neighborhood council.
But confusion remained and the utility work progressed.
“It still sounded to us like CenturyLink didn’t have the necessary permits,” Marilyn Reedy said.
Representatives from CenturyLink joined the Dec. 13 neighborhood council meeting.
“We had a big discussion that night,” Carol Voegler said. “I guess we thought we’d get a proposal to look at, but we didn’t.”
The neighbors left the meeting with the impression that CenturyLink would be willing to move any telephone poles that were put in, and that they could submit an alternative proposal for where to relocate the cables and poles.
“Even though we aren’t engineers, we drove around the neighborhood and looked at the poles and came up with a better plan,” Marilyn Reedy said.
On Dec. 19 and Dec. 20 two poles went in to the spots already determined by CenturyLink.
Yet it wasn’t until a Jan. 24 meeting with CenturyLink that the neighbors got to present their proposal.
“That’s also when we realized that CenturyLink wasn’t going to pay for moving the cables,” said Marilyn Reedy. “They didn’t take us seriously at all. It was all just lip service.”
CenturyLink’s Zimmer confirmed that the neighbors would have to pay for an “alternative installation solution.” The price could be tens of thousands of dollars depending on the alternative solution. “We understand the neighborhood concerns,” Zimmer wrote, “and have met with the residents regarding this installation three times in the last 30 days discussing and considering several alternative solutions.”
According to the neighbors, that’s three times too late because the poles are already in and the cables strung.
“We worry about what can be piggybacked on a project like this, here and in other neighborhoods,” Tom Reedy said.
City changed permit requirement
Which comes back to the city’s permit application process: The work CenturyLink completed on Wall Street was done in the public right of way and the company does have the necessary permits to do the work.
“The placement of these poles is within the guidelines of the franchise agreement with CenturyLink,” wrote city spokeswoman Marlene Feist in an email. “However, the city will actively work to facilitate a conversation between CenturyLink and the impacted neighbors to work toward a solution.”
Neighbors maintain that one pole is too close to an existing street tree and should be moved.
Neither the city nor the utility company is under any obligation to notify neighbors when permitted work is being done in the right of way.
Zimmer said that CenturyLink notifies residents and communicates with homeowners if construction work or installation will impact personal property. Planting strips are not personal property.
To ensure that other neighborhoods will be granted an opportunity to comment on infrastructure changes, Feist said the city has made some changes:
“To prevent inordinate impact of utility infrastructure on neighborhoods in the future, the city has modified our street obstruction permit application to require utilities to submit designs for new infrastructure projects, such as new pole installation.”