Angry Residents Demand Answers

Angry Residents Demand Answers

Homeowners confront utilities about property damage.

Tempers flared and anger boiled over, Monday night, as nearly 50 Franklin Glen and Armfield Farm residents confronted representatives of three utilities about damage done to their yards and driveways in the name of progress.

"I'VE LIVED in Franklin Glen since 1998, and my lot's been dug up once a year," said homeowner Steve Bracewell. "I want limits [on how many times they can do this]. Whenever the technology changes — fiber optics, digital cable — they dig up our yards. Our lawns and driveways can't keep up with the technology."

Del. Gary Reese (R-67th) arranged a town meeting at Franklin Middle School so residents could tell Verizon, Cox Communications and Dominion Virginia Power their specific problems and, hopefully, receive some satisfaction.

He said residents contacted him and said all three utilities' subcontractors have been "digging up yards and driveways and not doing a good enough job of restoring them. For example, concrete driveways were patched with asphalt, and lawns and plantings weren't replaced."

As this area's General Assembly representative, said Reese: "Over the last four or five months, I've received phone calls and e-mails, and [Sully District] Supervisor Michael Frey's received hundreds of them."

Reese said he also learned of the problems while going door-to-door campaigning for re-election to the 67th District (the Republican primary is Tuesday). He then decided to bring all sides together in a town meeting "to see what can be done" to resolve the troubles.

"The most immediate issue is Verizon, but this is broader," said Franklin Glen's Michael Clendenon. He said a neighbor's property "has been dug up eight out of eight years, and that's just not acceptable. The issues are lack of communication and a terrible job on restoration — and the games we have to go through to get some positive, fair resolution."

HE SAID the three utilities can either work out some type of communication with the residents before, during and after their projects — and really restore the property they damage — or Reese and Sen. Bill Mims (R-33rd), who also attended Monday, could legislate these problems in the General Assembly.

"As a community, we're really upset," said Clendenon. "I just replaced my driveway, and it's fine now — except that Dominion is waiting in the wings to rip it up again. I still have a sprinkler system to be repaired, and I only got restitution on my property and driveway after four weeks of yelling and screaming." Bracewell suggested all the utilities use a common conduit to minimize the damage.

Doug Brammer, with Verizon external affairs, said his company wants to know about unresolved restoration issues. Regarding notifying residents about work to be done, he said Verizon's evolved from using informative "doorhangers" to sending out letters as much as 30 days in advance.

"And we've launched a Web site with additional information," he said. "So we've tried to listen to people who are unhappy and create better initiatives to deal with them." Reese then advised residents having ongoing complaints with Verizon to "meet with [its representatives] tonight and tell them here."

"Everybody in this room probably has half a driveway," said homeowner Robert Shear. "Armfield Farm looks ridiculous." He said his community has 470 homes and needs full driveways, not just repairs on 20 feet of 40-foot driveways. Said Shear: "You owe it to us to repair the whole thing."

A woman asked what 'restoration' really means, and Brammer replied, "We should restore the property to its condition prior to our being there." Added Walter Jones, Verizon construction director: "Driveways have been the most contentious issue for us."

"We come home and find a big hole in our driveway and we can't get in," said Wanda Miller of Franklin Glen. "I do apologize for the damage caused," said Jones. "But it can't be helped."

"It took about six weeks of hassle to get my repairs," said Franklin Glen's Joe Palma. He initially thought his property contained a utility easement but, he said, when he looked at his plat, "There's no easement there. This is America — who takes your property without your permission? There are holes all over the God-damned place! It is absolutely wrong to take someone's property like this. I want results, period. Your job is to make it right."

FRANKLIN GLEN'S Alex Combos worked for a power company for 20 years and, he said, "We typically gave notification. But when we got to driveways, we talked to the homeowner first, before doing something to it. You just can't go ripping up people's driveways without talking to them." He said Dominion caused thousands of dollars damage to a neighbor's property and, behind a home on Buckeye Court, he said workmen "cut into two, 8-inch tiles for drainage and laughed about it."

Army Lt. Col. Steve Miller (Wanda's husband) of Franklin Glen said residents were promised their property would be restored to its "like condition" before the work. But, he said, "It's not 'like condition' when you throw down seed, when we used to have a lawn. And I never saw your flyers or letters. Verizon doesn't get my business anymore — I'm with Cox."

He said he doesn't want Verizon to restore their property, but to compensate him for the $7,600 estimate he received to fix his driveway. "I want you to write me a check," said Miller. "And I'm gonna hire someone to do the work and not pay them until it's done to my satisfaction. I couldn't even get a hold of you. Four hours on the phone and multiple messages got me nowhere. I only got through after going to the Better Business Bureau."

Linda Maddalena, a Dominion lead project designer, said, "Our priority is to provide good service for our customers. We're replacing cable; if not, there'll be prolonged power outages."

But Franklin Glen's Jodi Fraize said that, two days before Memorial Day, Dominion dug a huge hole by the community pool. "It's at least 10-12 feet deep and 10x10 feet, and it extends underneath the sidewalk — which has now been compromised," she said. But more importantly, said Fraize, "It's now half-full of water and there's equipment there. It's a huge safety issue. Our kids could fall in it and die."

MADDALENA apologized and said she'd talk to that project's construction manager and pipe foreman, the next day. And Monday, workmen were there. "We're backfilling it and putting up plywood and barricades so it'll be safe," said Maddalena. "And we'll be doing that in the future."

Returning to the driveway issue, homeowner Chuck Hicks said his was only repaired halfway "and I can show you the crack that's gonna be there because it's already shrinking. My notification came less than 24 hours, and the guys were there jackhammering the next morning. I called and they said they'd call right back, but they never did. I've been waiting two weeks for Verizon to call me back."

Jones said Verizon's "fully accountable for the actions of their subcontractors, and I apologize for the no call-backs. Our contractors were overwhelmed with work ... but that's not acceptable."

Steve Miller said his driveway's now three different shades and, while repairing one portion of it, workmen damaged and cracked the apron. He then warned that "a satisfied customer tells three people, but an unsatisfied customer tells 17."

A woman asked if Verizon will replace whole driveways or continue to repair just parts. "It's cost prohibitive," replied Jones. "Our goal is not to cut it, in the first place. We'll look at driveways we've damaged, on a case-by-case basis. But we go by the industry standard — which is not to replace the whole driveway."

Franklin Glen's Frank Lothschuetz said he was never notified prior to any of the work. "I came home one day and there was a tractor in my backyard," he said. "And they cut the whole root system out of a 40-foot pin oak tree — which will now eventually fall on our townhouse."

Behind his property on Buckeye Court, he said, "They ripped up $20,000 worth of landscaping to fix a drainage problem and left a massive hole there for a month." Added neighbor Combos: "There was a 20,000-volt cable in the hole. Kids could have gotten back there and we could have had a fatality."

AT THE meeting's end, Del. Reese said he'd give the residents a way to get in touch with the utilities. He also got a list of their names so he could contact them in 30 days to attend another meeting to see what, if any, progress has been made toward addressing their grievances.

"The utilities know what they're doing, two to three years in advance, and they should just do it once," he said. Reese said, perhaps, the contractors should have performance bonds and the legislature could consider what "adequate notice" should be. The residents also asked for a definition of "like condition" and to have someone on site while work's happening, to explain it to the homeowner.

Clendenon then thanked Reese for arranging the meeting and warned Jones, "We're gonna take you at your word that you're gonna make things right. And we're gonna hold you to it."

Afterward, Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said Verizon's transforming its network into all fiber optic. "This brings it close to people's homes and businesses to offer much faster Internet access and video service in competition with cable companies," he explained. "And it allows us to offer a tremendous amount of capacity."

But he said it's difficult to do work underground. When utilities run perpendicular to the road, said Mitchell, "You have to do potholing in the driveway to ensure that you can locate the gas, water and power lines so you don't nick them."

And Maddalena said Dominion's working in Franklin Glen to replace cable spans between electric transformers for better service. Affected will be Springhaven Drive, Nodding Pine Court, Hidden Meadow Drive and Peachwood Court.

"We're hoping to get the work done sometime in July," she said. "We understand customers have concerns because of prior utility work in the area, and we're going to do our best to restore the lawns as quickly as possible."