In Northfield Center Township, they’re resisting the installation of new automatic water meter readers.
In Macedonia, they’re ignoring a gas company’s mandate that sheds, pools and fences be moved out of easements.
A couple of years ago, these same communities and their northern Summit County neighbors launched a legal attack against a stormwater district to stop the implementation of new fees.
Macedonia Mayor Don Kuchta said he’s had his fill of “heavy-handed” utility actions in his neck of the woods.
“The utility companies are almost untouchable,” he said after having no luck getting Dominion East Ohio to ease off warnings to residents found to have structures within 30 feet of buried natural gas lines.
And after receiving no response from Cleveland officials about some controversial water meters being installed in his city, the mayor concluded, “They only answer to God.”
In the case of the easement, Dominion says there is nothing new going on here. They routinely patrol their 3,010 square miles of jurisdiction looking for infringements.
“Dominion’s core business standard is to operate a natural gas delivery system that is safe and reliable to the communities we serve,” spokesman Neil Durbin said.
There are practices required by federal law, he said, and easements are necessary for the personal safety of homeowners and to maintain the welfare of the pipeline.
So that means occasionally auditing properties and notifying residents when they build a structure in the forbidden zone.
Then there’s the case of Cleveland Water, which provides service in several northern Summit County communities.
The department did not return calls seeking information about its new water meter program. But on its website, it said its “Clear Reads” project is installing automated meter-reading technology at 420,000 homes and businesses to eliminate the need for manual meter reading.
Also, because the technology transmits water usage to Cleveland Water in real time, users can get a detailed history of when they use water so they can “manage consumption.”
The idea of the government logging someone’s every use of water is one straw too many for people who are already concerned about recent “Big Brother” activities, Northfield Center Township Trustee Paul Buescher said.
“You have cities watching us with traffic cameras, TSA going into our pants, NSA monitoring our phones and email. Now [Cleveland Water] wants to know when we flush our toilets,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
Gas line easement
Kuchta said he was surprised this spring when he arrived home to find a yellow line painted across his backyard, marking the gas company’s easement. On the wrong side of the line was the split-rail fence he put up in 1980.
Kuchta said he knew of the easement when he installed the fence to stop people from snowmobiling and riding horses through his property. But he figured if there was some big emergency with the pipeline, it would be easy enough to pop out the fence posts.
Even if he hadn’t been caught in Dominion’s routine patrol, he would have learned about it soon enough. He said over the next few days, he fielded numerous emails and phone calls from concerned constituents who said they knew nothing about an easement when they installed sheds, swimming pools or fences.
Dave Tami put up a shed behind his Smokerise Drive home about eight years ago. It’s probably a dozen feet from the gas line, but that would still put it 18 feet too close.
Unlike Kuchta, he said he didn’t know anything about the easement. It’s not mentioned in his property description, and nothing came up when he submitted drawings for his 10-by-12 outbuilding to the city and received a permit to build it.
“If I would have been given notice years ago, I would never have put it there to begin with,” he said.
Standing in his backyard, he guesses the 60 feet of easement demanded by Dominion would take up half of his yard.
“I’d think these trees would be a bigger problem,” he said, noting two trees that appear to be directly over the buried pipe.
In a letter to Kuchta, a Dominion official acknowledged the only clear way to identify an easement is through a property title search.
Given that most folks innocently encroached on the easement and their structures were not actually over the pipeline, the mayor suggested the utility look the other way.
“Here’s my idea,” he told a Dominion official he invited to his office. “You bring me a letter written up by the lawyers for the utility company. That letter will say I understand my shed/pool/fence is in the pipeline right-of-way, and by signing this letter I’m agreeing to the fact that it may have to be demolished if an emergency occurs. And we’ll all sign it. That way, if nothing happens, who cares?”
The written response from Dominion to that suggestion was that “these violations cannot remain.”
Durbin added: “Once an easement violation is discovered, Dominion attempts to resolve the issue with the property owner. If resolution cannot be reached, it is sent to the Legal Department, where any and all legal avenues are considered to best reach resolution.”
Still, Kuchta and Tami have no immediate plans to move their violations.
“Without warning, you come in here and get everyone upset,” Kuchta said he told the Dominion official. “He tells me, ‘We send you [warnings] like this every year.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ Then he showed me a pamphlet that says you may have a gas line on your property and what to do if you smell gas. Nothing about an easement.”
Durbin said he doesn’t know how many infringements were identified in Macedonia during the recent patrol, but that last year 707 households in the city would have received “Did You Know?” postcards. The cards are mailed every other year.
The cards, however, do not mention easements.
New water meters
Northfield Trustee Buescher said he won’t be belligerent if the Cleveland Water people show up at his home to install one of their new Clear Reads water meters.
But he will object on the grounds that the frequency of the transmitting meter — it automatically reports how much water is being used every six minutes — might interfere with his federally licensed ham radio.
That’s just one of the reasons local residents are resisting the new meters.
Others fear news media reports of an occasional homeowner who received a huge water bill increase once the Clear Reads technology was installed.
The new meters are not optional, says Cleveland Water. In a recent final notice sent to residents who had not yet scheduled an appointment to exchange their meter, the utility says the program is “mandatory pursuant to Section 533.01 of the City of Cleveland Codified Ordinances.”
Buescher said he doesn’t know why a Cleveland ordinance would be enforceable in Summit County and feels federal law is on his side.
Citing FCC regulations, his ham radio operates on a frequency band from 902-928 megahertz and takes precedence over other devices in that range. The new water meters are operating at 910-920 megahertz.
“If they show up here, I’m going to have a nice talk with them about that. For me personally, that’s the issue,” he said.
“But there’s a lot of resistance here to the mandatory installation. There are some people saying they won’t let them on their property,” Buescher said.
And he agrees with their concerns.
“What I see happening in the future: They’re going to start charging for water usage during peak hours,” he said. “What if they declare a sprinkler emergency during a drought, then look and see you used 100 gallons of water and decide you must have your sprinklers on?”
Macedonia is also a Cleveland Water customer, and along with the easement issue, Mayor Kuchta has gotten an earful from residents on this topic.
When one woman wrote him last week, saying she “reluctantly” scheduled the appointment for Cleveland Water to change her meter, Kuchta apologized for having no power to do anything about it.
But before the day was done, he sent her a second email saying he had been “pushed over the edge.”
“I just completed making a formal complaint on behalf of my constituents to the PUCO regarding Cleveland Water’s heavy-handed, intimidating procedures and ridiculous pricing. Also to notify them that my efforts to address the problems go unanswered.”
The resident wrote back saying she hoped something her father always told her proved to be right: “The squeaky wheel always gets the grease.”