Plans to move cables underground get complicated

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Plans to move cables underground get complicated

By ERIN MOODY
emoody@beaufortgazette.com
Published Monday, October 24, 2011   |  800 Words  |  

The wires strung from electric poles in the city of Beaufort won't disappear quickly just because city officials and residents want them gone, utility company representatives say.

Nonetheless, city officials want cable and telephone companies to bury their lines at the same time electric company SCE&G does or risk having their franchises revoked.

"If they want us at the table, we already have been at the table," said Chris McCorkendale, vice president of operations and engineering for Hargray Communications. "...We're willing to be involved and have not ruled anything out and I think it's just a matter of working together to come to the best solution."

Charter Communications and Century Link also are being asked to bury lines whenever SCE&G does. A proposed city ordinance would make it illegal for cable companies to refuse to bury their wires when electric company SCE&G buries its wires.

If the cable companies don't comply, the city can stop them from working in Beaufort, according to the ordinance.

About five years ago, SCE&G and the city began planning upgrades to the company's lines. In 2008, they agreed to allow taller poles so transmission lines would go over the tops of trees. Fewer poles would be needed and fewer trees would need to be trimmed.

SCE&G is burying smaller lines along the approximately two-mile transmission line route that zig-zags across the city and includes parts of North, Duke and Boundary streets and Pigeon Point Road, district manager David Tempel said.

The ultimate goal is to get all wires underground, city manager Scott Dadson said. The city's tree board is prioritizing areas with important trees where cables should go underground, chairwoman Barbara Farrior said. Recommendations could come as early as Thursday's board meeting.

Cities and counties used to grant franchises to let cable companies do business, but now franchises are granted by the state. However, municipalities can withhold approval of a state franchise, blocking a company from working in the area, according to state law.

That's what City Council is doing with a request for a state franchise by Hargray.

The city is trying to use the ordinance and the franchise denial as leverage to speed up talks between the companies and the city so lines can be buried as soon as possible, Dadson said.

"We're going to be looking at them coming back to us and saying 'Well, how do you want us to do this?'" Dadson said.

City Council approved the first reading of the ordinance Tuesday. A second reading has not been not scheduled. The city has met with representatives from each company, Dadson said.

A spokeswoman for Charter Communications said the company is reviewing the proposed ordinance but declined further comment. Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach CenturyLink representatives for comment were unsuccessful.

SCE&G's line upgrade should be complete by the end of the year, Tempel said. The 2008 agreement said the electric company would "coordinate and offer" space to cable companies in trenches it would dig to bury its lines.

SCE&G met several times with the cable companies to let them know the plan, Tempel said. Relocating lines is expensive and time-consuming, according to McCorkendale and cable company spokespeople.

The city receives $80,000 to $90,000 annually from the SCE&G franchise fee paid by customers to SCE&G, which can be used to help pay for underground projects, Dadson said. City officials hoped that the companies could piggyback on SCE&G's project to go underground.

The cable companies have agreements to use SCE&G's existing poles. Even though SCE&G will no longer use about 50 poles, they will remain standing as long as the cable companies use them, Tempel said. That adds to the visual clutter instead of reducing it, Mayor Billy Keyserling has said. That also could mean old specimen trees near the lines might have to be trimmed periodically, which the city also is trying to avoid.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort.

Related content:

SCE&G's transmission lines project and related city documents

S.C. Code of Laws Title 58 Chapter 12 Cable Television

Beaufort considers requiring cable companies to move lines underground, Oct. 18, 2011