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The Damage Done

Oakton homeowner battles Verizon over digging.

While Verizon tries to finagle a franchising agreement with Fairfax County, an Oakton resident is having problems with the telecom's digging.

Last March, said Mary Schaeffer of Hunting Hills Place in Oakton, Verizon came digging in her neighborhood. The company is replacing old copper cable with fiberoptic as part of its ‘fiberoptic to the premises’ (FTTP) project.

The subcontractor hired by Verizon, Hilton Cable Enterprises, proceeded to lay cable line. But when it came time to turn the underground sprinkler system on, said Schaeffer, her yard flooded.

"They just took out an entire three feet of the sprinkler system," said Schaeffer. "It’s not like an inch got nicked."

Schaeffer’s sprinkler company repaired the damage, and Hilton Cable Enterprises paid the bill.

But the driveway was another story, said Schaeffer, who had recently had a new asphalt driveway installed. When she returned from vacation on April 3, she found that Ivy H. Smith, LLC, another Verizon subcontractor, had come and dug up part of the driveway, leaving that section of the pavement uneven.

"We just paid a lot of money to have our driveway done," said Schaeffer. She called Ivy H. Smith in April and received a report identification number, but no one from the company called her.

The subcontractor which Ivy H. Smith hired to repair driveways — Arthur Construction Company, Inc. — came out to repair the damaged section, said Schaeffer. But the subcontractor would only cut on either side of the uneven spot and repair between the cuts, since that is all that Verizon would authorize.

"We do everything we possibly can to avoid digging the driveway," said Verizon spokesperson Christy Reap. "We try to dig underneath, but in situations where there is solid rock underneath the driveway, sometimes we are just left with no options."

The industry standard is to repair the damage to the driveway, said Reap.

"I said to them, ‘That’s basically a patch job,’" said Schaeffer. "I don’t need a patch job, I need a whole service."

SCHAEFFER'S COMPLAINT has not been the only one Verizon received from a county resident.

"At first, we had a direct contact with Verizon and we were communicating on a daily basis," said Debbie Wisoff, assistant to Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence). "And then it became too big of a problem to handle, so the county set up a separate section in Consumer Protection to deal with it."

The county now employs two people full-time to field and investigate complaints against Verizon, said Wisoff.

"We lost count a long time ago," said Smyth of the number of complaints.

The Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection has received 115 complaints against Verizon Communications since last January, said director Gail Eskew.

Many homeowners have easements on their property where Verizon, and other companies, have right-of-way to lay telephone or power lines, or in this case, fiber-optic cable, said Smyth.

"People already have easements for Verizon to run telephone lines," she said. "It’s a matter of going back in and digging that all up. The problem is, (communications companies) haven’t been too precise in digging easements."

No county-wide easements exist, said Smyth. Homeowners can check their plats for easements on their properties.

"Verizon has a strict process in place to work with (contractors) on concerns in neighborhoods and of residents on the digging," said Reap. "They do their best to avoid problems as far as digging or damages."

Jeff Jones, project manager for Ivy H. Smith, declined to comment, and referred questions to Verizon.

Ultimately, said Reap, Verizon takes responsibility for the project. The company meets regularly with the county and the Virginia Department of Transportation to coordinate communication with other cable companies and communication with residents.

Verizon’s policy on notifying residents of construction is that homeowners should receive a letter notifying them of future construction 30 days in advance, a door hanger 72 hours in advance, and another door hanger when the project is finished, said Reap.

Sometimes, customer notification does not always go through, however. "We have had several meetings with Verizon to talk about customer notification," said Eskew.

"If a neighborhood doesn’t get a door hanger, that is inexcusable, but the vast majority do get door hangers," said Reap.

As for Schaeffer, she has filed a complaint on Fairfax County’s Web site and is waiting for a response.

"I understand the constituents I’ve spoken to have been very happy, and that (their complaints) have been resolved quickly," said Wisoff.

To file a complaint against a company, homeowners can call the Consumer Protection Division at 703-222-8435 (TTY 711) to have a complaint form mailed to them, or visit the Fairfax County’s Web site at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/consumer.htm. Click on ‘Consumer Central’ and ‘File a Complaint.’