Sandy Springs is cracking down on fiber-optic cable installations that are drawing complaints, and has launched an online map to show active fiber work in the city.
The new rules approved by City Council Sept. 6 apply to all utility permits, but are aimed at fiber brands such as AT&T and Google, which have contractors digging up streets and yards in a rapid push to build out their cutting-edge, high-speed internet and TV networks. The rules will require more advance notice to property owners, better contact info and pre-permit meetings with city staff—and will come with “aggressive” enforcement against rule-breaking, City Manager John McDonough said.
“We’ve had an arms race, if you will, with fiber,” said city Public Works Director Garrin Coleman, in a metaphor used by several city officials.
But what they described was more like trench warfare: competing companies repeatedly digging up the same streets and yards, sometimes without local notice and with shoddy restoration work. Half of the council and Mayor Rusty Paul described complaints, with Councilmember Andy Bauman saying some fiber companies are “leaving a trail of carnage” in neighborhoods.
Similar fiber installation problems have been reported by media nationwide, including in Austin, Texas and Raleigh, N.C. Earlier this year, the cities of Atlanta, Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs said in interviews that they had some complaints about fiber installations, but most could not provide statistics or descriptions of any citiations.
Coleman indicated that complaints and problems are increasing hand-in-hand with a huge boom in utility permits, as companies apparently build northward from Atlanta.
He said that at this time last year, the city had issued 193 utility permits; so far this year, it has issued 746. Constituent calls about utility work are also trending up: 545 calls so far this year, contrasting with 564 in all of 2015. Coleman said there is no data on how many of those calls were complaints—as opposed to questions or other issues—or how many were directed at specific companies.
The city has its own complaints, too. Coleman said that Google Fiber’s first permit in Sandy Springs, on Spalding Drive, was carried out by a contractor who went beyond the allowed work times into rush hour. The city ordered a halt to the work, he said.
“That wasn’t a good start,” Coleman said of Google Fiber’s installation debut.
Mayor Rusty Paul said that about two months ago, “AT&T [fiber installation] came through my neighborhood, and the [subcontractor] didn’t even know which utility they were working for.”
“We’re getting a lot of calls” as well as complaints via councilmembers, McDonough said, explaining the city’s intent to get a “more transparent, more responsive” fiber installation process.
The new rules will require 72 hours’ notice to property owners—up from the current 24—which must be done with door-hanger notices. Those notices must include the permit number, the utility company’s name, a description of property owners’ rights, and a 24-hour contact person.
If the installation is over 500 linear feet of work, the project also will need roadside signs at beginning and end of work site, and a pre-application meeting with city staff that must include representatives from both the utility and the specific contractor doing the work.
For even more public notice, the city immediately launched the interactive map of all utility work underway or pending in the city. It shows the routes of various types of utility work, which can be clicked to get the full permit information.
McDonough and Coleman said the city will be tougher about enforcing the new rules, as well as the existing standard that requires restoration of dig sites in five to 10 business days. Coleman also talked about possibly more severe penalties for violations—including criminal charges—though he said those might be “pushing” the law.
“We have not cited utility providers to date,” Coleman said, explaining that stop-work orders have been used instead.
“What they hate more than anything is a stop-work order,” McDonough said, indicating that will remain the city’s top choice of punishment for permit rule-breakers. Repeat offenders could have the permit revoked, Coleman suggested.
The council discussed the new rules in a non-voting work session, but gave city staff general approval to move ahead in putting the rules in place within about 30 days.
Councilmembers had some suggestions that were not immediately included in the new rules. Bauman asked for more information about possibly requiring permits on private roads and requiring companies to coordinate their cable-laying to avoid repeated digging.
Councilmember Chris Burnett asked about applying the rules to the water system, provided by the city of Atlanta, and the sewer system, provided by Fulton County. Staff and Paul indicated the new rules are not meant to change those relationships significantly, and the city is already working on an improved maintenance deal with the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management.