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Line in the Grass

Verizon subcontractor lays cables in town limits without permission.

Noelia Brush didn’t think much of the red marks spray-painted on her lawn on Woodland Court, N.W., a few weeks ago; utilities often need to mark the location of underground lines or pipes for one reason or another.

Then, last Wednesday, Brush answered the door one morning when a parent came to her home-based day care business. "I saw five guys digging up my flower beds and another five on the grass," Brush said. "You open the door and you see all these people on the driveway and you don’t know who they are."

The garden was one that Brush and her husband had worked on together for five years, until his death about a year and a half ago, Brush said. Some of the plants that were torn up were ones that the couple had planted together in years past. She said she began telling this to the supervisor of the crew. "I was in tears telling him," Brush said, "and I didn’t even know who they were."

The men were working for Ivy Smith, a subcontractor of Verizon, which was laying fiberoptic cable in the town. However, Verizon does not presently have permission to install a fiberoptic network in the town.

VERIZON, LIKE all utilities, needs a "franchise agreement" to operate within the town. The terms of the agreements can vary, but generally, the company pays the town a fee and agrees to certain requirements in exchange for the ability to do business in the town and maintain the lines it needs to install.

Verizon had come before the Vienna Town Council last fall and asked for permission to install the fiberoptic lines. At that time, the Town Council said that it would need a new franchise agreement before Verizon could begin installation. The new lines would allow video and Internet service, which councilmembers decided exceeded the scope of the existing agreement. "They’re offering additional services that they never envisioned with their old franchise," said Steve Briglia, attorney for the Town of Vienna.

Verizon, at the time, said that if the Town Council did not give permission for the new lines, it would begin to install them in other areas and didn’t know when workers could get back to Vienna.

The council sympathized with the desire for the enhanced service. "A lot of people want this. We want it for them," said Mayor M. Jane Seeman. However, councilmembers insisted that agreement be in place to protect the citizens of the town.

Verizon’s most recent agreement expired in 1992, Briglia said. However, because of the need for phone service in the town, the company has been permitted to operate under the terms of the old agreement. "We’re not kicking the phone company out of town," Briglia said.

Verizon and the town have been working toward the terms of a new agreement, Briglia said.

DURING A TOWN council meeting on March 21, Town Manager John Schoeberlein said that this is the fourth or fifth time in recent months that Verizon crews have been laying the cable within the town limits.

This happened, said Verizon spokesperson Lee Gierczynski, because the subcontractor was installing the cable in Fairfax County, and did not know where the county stops and Vienna starts. "That was an oversight on our part. We apologize for the oversight," Gierczynski said. "We’re going to be taking corrective action to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. ... It is not our intention to create any controversy with the town or the customers."

One of the aspects that upset Brush the most, she said, was the surprise of them working, even if it may have been within a right-of-way. "At least, they could have the courtesy to come to your house a few days before," she said.

Briglia said that the town is working to include notification provisions in any new franchise agreements. "That’s one of the things I discussed with Verizon," Briglia said.

Gierczynski said that Verizon has a system in place for customer notification. "We have an entire process to contact customers multiple times," he said. "They weren’t contacted because the crews weren’t supposed to be there."

The work crews did work to restore her garden, Brush said, and offered to pay for replanting it. But the way the earth was turned means that some of the seeds and bulbs which she and her husband planted are now too far below the ground to sprout again. "They’re never going to come back now," she said.